I have a bad Law & Order: SVU habit. It’s not just that I’ve seen every single episode at least once, or that just thinking about the show renders me incapable of wanting to do anything else besides watch Olivia Benson & Co. fight for justice. Really, the issue is that this urge always seems to kick in just as I should be getting ready for a social outing — that party sounded fun when I got the invite a week ago, but now all I can think about is an exit strategy.
Canceling plans, in other words, is something I have some experience with. And doing it at the last minute while leaving your relationships intact, I’ve learned, is its own art form. Everyone has situations where conflicts unexpectedly pop up (or days where you just can’t bear to go out and be social); the challenge is communicating that in a way that doesn’t seem like a reflection of how you feel about the person you’re bailing on.
“Social rejection is really hard because we know we have no script for it,” says Gili Freedman, a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College who has studied social rejection. “In a lot of social interactions, there’s a protocol that we follow. In a social rejection, though, there’s nothing good to say that we can think of.” A simple “sorry” doesn’t seem sufficient, but anything more can feel like a flimsy excuse.
Fortunately for people like me, though, there are road-tested strategies for conscientiously flaking. One of them, less fortunately, is to do it rarely. “If you find that this is something that you’re doing often, it’s probably that you’re saying yes to too many things and the real problem is not how to get out of stuff but how to say no in the first place,” says psychologist Andrea Bonior, psychologist and author of The Friendship Fix. But if you’ve really got to skip out on tonight’s happy hour, here’s how to do it.
How to be good at canceling plans
It’s easy to reach for the old “I’m not feeling so well” approach — and that’s fine, as long as it’s true. It’s always best to give a reason why you’re bailing, especially when that reason is both truthful and specific. For instance, “I’m not feeling up for it tonight” may sound lame in your head, but it’s definitely more effective than the generic “something came up.” “It lets the person know you did try, you do want to go, and you’re not grabbing something vague as an excuse,” Bonior says.
A caveat: For bigger events like an engagement party or a baby shower, where having to perform excitement about another person’s milestones can lead to pre-celebration dread, Bonior suggests tabling your true feelings for a later date. “Backing out of that [by] saying, ‘I have some complicated feelings about your engagement’ is probably not the best time,” she says. “In those cases, a white lie is okay.”
No matter your excuse, it should be delivered over the phone or in person, so there’s less room for it to get lost in translation.
“If she hears your voice, she will be less upset with you than she would be if she received a disembodied text or email,” says Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are.
How to be better at canceling plans
When it comes to bailing, it’s smart to think a few steps ahead: what can you do to ensure there’s no ill will? If a last-minute emergency prevents you from missing an out-of-town 30th-birthday party or other moderately important gathering, for example, be sure to still send a gift (perhaps a little more extravagant than you originally planned) and a handwritten note.
Also, keep the self-deprecating comments to yourself. By exclaiming “I’m the worst!” when you cancel, you’re subliminally putting the pressure back on your friend to give you a pick-me-up by validating that you are, in fact, not the worst. “That’s actually letting yourself off the hook by blaming your decision on some imaginary permanent character flaw that’s out of your control,” Flora says. “Better to sincerely say you’re so sorry you’ll miss it, then make it up to her by being there for her the next time she needs something.”
In fact, you should try turning things around — don’t fish for validation, but validate them. Freedman has found in her research that positive reinforcement does help quell hurt feelings when it comes to social rejection. “Reiterat[e] the fact that you value this friendship, that you’re not rejecting them permanently, that you care about them as a human being,” she says.
How to be the best at canceling plans
Ultimately, the goal is to walk away completely unscathed, and that means avoiding both guilt and FOMO — and that means staying off social media. Say you had to skip a party for a last-minute family function and instead sulked over Instagrams depicting the fun you could’ve been having — not ideal. On the flip side, your pals don’t want a Twitter play-by-play of your Netflix binge when you could’ve been out with them instead.
And if you really want to commit to transparency, you can incorporate your friend into your decision-making process, which also lets you test the waters to determine the best course of action. For example, you had plans to grab drinks with a friend when another pal offers you tickets to a sold-out concert the same night. “You can also present your friend with your dilemma, and let her weigh in,” says Flora. “If she seems upset and hurt by the prospect of your canceling, try to make it happen. If she seems totally understanding, go ahead and cancel.”
Still, even the most understanding friend will only be understanding so many times, and the real key to being the best bailer — it bears repeating — is to not make it a habit. By constantly canceling, “You run the risk of being a social climber or a total flake or someone selfish enough to look out for something better,” Bonior says. “You also damage your reputation pretty easily. Gradually, [your] friendships become a little more superficial.”
But when you do bail, Bonior suggests setting concrete plans for next time — and sticking to them. Can’t make dinner? Make it up with Sunday brunch.
“The more specific you can be about a better time to get together,” she says, “the better it is.”