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Bailing or Failing

I don’t normally read David Brooks, but a newsletter I read linked to one of his recent columns. It was pure Brooks, cranky and curmudgeonly, swinging his fist out at the act of bailing.

His thesis is that technology has made it too easy to cancel plans. On Monday people set up drinks for Thursday, and then on Thursday afternoon, they cancel said plans because of X, Y, or Z. He writes,

There was a time, not long ago, when a social commitment was not regarded as a disposable Post-it note, when people took it as a matter of course that reliability is a core element of treating people well, that how you spend your time is how you spend your life, and that if you don’t flake on people who matter you have a chance to build deeper and better friendships and live in a better and more respectful way. Of course, all that went away with the smartphone.

I am curious if others have experienced this because I have not. At least, I haven’t experienced it in any greater amount since the advent of the smartphone. Cancelling existed back in my dial-up modem college days and it still exists today.

So, yes, people still cancel from time to time, but there is generally a good reason given. (For example, a project they thought would be done is taking longer than expected or someone unexpectedly needs them so they can’t grab dinner.) I am finding the opposite is true in the Facebook age.

We connect with so many more people than usual throughout the day. Not just face-to-face people, but we leave a comment on a friend’s Instagram picture and end up having a fun back and forth for a few minutes. And then someone says, “We need to get together!” And it never happens.

THAT: two people state that they want to grab dinner or go see the same movie but they never set up the plans.

I don’t know if it’s something that some people just say because they don’t know how to dismount from the Instagram conversation. They can’t just take the interaction on face value and allow the interaction to stand on its own. Maybe they feel embarrassed that they’re taking the time to comment on a photo but they haven’t taken the time to grab Starbucks together.

But I cannot tell you how many people tell me we should do something together and then never set up the plans in the first place. And I know that I do the same thing, too. I say that we should get together when I know full well that I don’t have the time.

It’s like saying a soft yes in the moment so you get remembered for the yes and hopefully will never have to state the hard no down the road.

So I guess I don’t agree with Brooks that bailing is the issue — and maybe you disagree with me on this — but I think the smartphone has either (1) put us in touch with too many people and therefore we keep feeling like (and saying aloud that) we should make plans when we know we don’t have the time and space to honour all the fictional plans we’re setting up or (2) set up a system where we feel like we don’t have to make concrete plans because we know we’ll be able to see where they are from a Facebook post and then show up in the same space if the opportunity aligns.

What has been your experience? Are more people bailing on plans or not making concrete plans in the first place?


1 Charlotte { 07.26.17 at 7:58 am }

So I think what Facebook and the smartphone has done has made it so that people who would naturally fade from your life (like when you would move and lose touch, or who you know because your kids are in the same class) you now have a way to stay in touch with. They are still in your smartphone or on your fb feed. So there is really no excuse not to stay in touch. So that when you reconnect over a comment on a photo, it feels sort of shameful to have all this technology but not actually stay in touch. Whereas before the smartphone, they would just be people you used to know when your kid played soccer and you grabbed coffee during practice.
I do see a lot more of cancelling of plans, probably because it’s easy to type up a text but much harder to pick up the phone and bail on someone. I think it’s definitely made us less respectful or plans and time and all of that.
Whenever I encounter a situation where I feel like the person isn’t truly being genuine about getting together with me but suggests it anyway, I usually throw out a couple days/times and tell them to let me know. That way I don’t feel bad beingbthe one who never cements the plans, but also to weed out the people who say it but don’t really value me enough to actually spend time with me.
For example, a girl I was close friends with in highschool and off and on stayed in touch with sent out an email (to every contact in her address book) for an empty house warming, as she just bought a house and was finally moving from her childhood home (where I spent a lot of time pre-marriage/kids). I emailed back Congrats and that I can’t believe she’s finally moving from that house, and she emails back saying I should bring my kids over for one last swim in the pool (she moves in a couple weeks). So I throw out dates and times and was like “yes, definitely, we’re there” and she comes back with “well, I have a lot of packing to do and I’m busy with the pending move but let me see what I get done and I will get back to you” So not only did she not expect me to say yes, she really didn’t mean her invite over to swim. (And these were back and forth emails in the same 10 minutes, AND I gave like an entire week plus of days and pretty much an open schedule) BUT, she’s totally ok with inviting me to a housewarming to have me bring a gift and show off her new house. People like that I have no time for.

2 a { 07.26.17 at 8:31 am }

I don’t make plans unless I have every intention of being there and whoever I’m meeting does too. We do the vague “we should get together!” thing in my circle of friends, but unless it’s tied to a concrete offer, everyone knows it’s just lip service.

3 Noemi { 07.26.17 at 8:35 am }

I think smartphones have made it a lot easier to cancel plans. Definitely. I put a lot of importance on plans I make with people and only ever cancel when something out of my control causes me too (generally illness, but also the cancelation of child care). I find other people are comfortable cancelling because they are “tired” or “just don’t feel like it” and that is so frustrating. It really sucks to be someone who still cares about plans when so much of the world thinks they are more suggestions than actual commitments.

4 Turia { 07.26.17 at 11:08 am }

Oh I definitely think technology makes it easier for people to feel like they can cancel plans. I tend not to do this but I’m an introvert with small children so it’s rare that I have plans- if I’ve actually organized something I won’t cancel.

I will say the “we should really get together” as a way to end a conversation is very common (and it used to be very British- our colleagues from the UK are always saying we should come round for dinner and then never organizing it). I never take it at face value- it’s like when people ask how you are doing as a conversation starter and not as a real question.

5 Sharon { 07.26.17 at 12:21 pm }

It is probably easier to cancel plans with all the technology available to us, but like you, I haven’t actually experienced an uptick in this behavior. I think it may be a function of age: most of my friends are in their late 30s or 40s. Also, I tend to self-select for friends who won’t flake on me because I find that behavior very annoying.

FWIW, I had a couple of friends back in the 1990s who used to flake out on me all the time, and this was pre-smart phone. 😉

6 Beth { 07.26.17 at 1:18 pm }

It’s easier to cancel but also easier to set up plans. I don’t generally make plans unless I plan to follow through but the truth is I do sometimes cancel. However that has always been me. Texting makes it less stressful than a phone call but the cancel is still the same. Interesting point about feeling like we have to make plans though. When I was still using Facebook I connected with a former co worker and shared quite a bit of info about the adoption process. Eventually she suggested we get our kids together and in the moment I read the email that had potential to be fun. I agreed. But then the effort and disruption of packing up a toddler and a newborn who both hate the car and driving 45 minutes each way, likely missing the window for them to nap… all to get together with a lovely person with whom I am not actually friends … so I cancelled. And texting/email certainly made that all easier.

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.26.17 at 6:22 pm }

Another facet is that having cell phones (not even smart ones) means we can cancel plans much later than we did before. Not having cell phones or GPS systems mean people have to have their crap together earlier in a plan. I mean, if you were going to cancel lunch with someone back then, you’d have to let them know before they left the place with the phone. Kinda hard to remember those days.

I sidestepped your question because I don’t have the answer. I try not to say, “let’s make plans” unless I really mean to.

8 nicoleandmaggie { 07.26.17 at 10:00 pm }

I think David Brooks lives in an alternate reality and his alternate past life never actually existed.

9 Persnickety { 07.26.17 at 11:40 pm }

I think mobiles ( not smart phone) made it easier to cancel at the last minute. But they do also make last minute get together possible.
Funnily enough, I think the same handwringing went on with the introduction of the telephone (people were so much more polite when you had to invite/decline on paper)
I think it is also an extension of the insecurity of high school life into adulthood- the fear of missing the really cool party because you are are already committed to a more boring thing- and the invites to the exciting thing get sent out last minute so everybody is less likely to accept invites to other things firmly. Which causes that thing to be cancelled.

10 Jess { 07.27.17 at 11:16 am }

Hmmm, interesting thought. I totally agree with you. I think people can bail out on plans just as easily (unless it was the time of stagecoaches and telegrams or pony express or whatever) via landline than via mobile phone. But I do definitely see the “we should totally get together!” piece. I think it’s the awkwardness of being like, “I don’t actually know you well enough to go to lunch or coffee” because of all the connections, or the massive amount of connections that you simply don’t have time for, like you said. I feel guilty when I do it, but I know who is serious and who is not. And I feel like if you actually want to get together, you’ll contact me, and texting makes that a lot easier. I think facebook makes it possible to think you have a greater connection with people than you actually do. That you have many connections but most are shallow, whereas with actual authentic communication (I guess I include text in this) more of an effort is made, and it’s deeper. That said I have connected with people on Facebook and had it turn deeper that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I guess there’s positives and negatives!

11 Deathstar { 07.27.17 at 1:19 pm }

Yes, I do think technology makes it easier to cancel on people at the last moment. Passive communication through texting. Yes, I have done it, hate to say it, generally because I double booked myself and forgot to write an event down and then I have to choose. That doesn’t happen a lot but I feel like shit when it does. Since I don’t like that feeling, what I do more often is not commit to seeing someone until the last possible moment. I don’t know which is worse.

12 Mali { 07.28.17 at 9:46 pm }

I have a friend who will arrange a day to get together, then when I suggest a time and location, or ask her for a suggestion, suddenly our text conversation goes silent. So the dinner or drinks date then goes nowhere. And she will say, “oh, I couldn’t remember if we’d decided on a day.” When it’s there in her text messages. Or she’ll say she sent a text that I never got. Or that she never got my text messages. It’s amazing how unreliable her texting is! Needless to say, we don’t see each other very often these days.

If I make a commitment to go somewhere with someone, I’ll do it – barring emergencies or ill-health. But I’ll always try and give a decent period of notice. And I will admit that it is easier to decline an invitation via text or email than over phone or face-to-face, and that is sometimes dangerously tempting.

13 Valery Valentina { 07.29.17 at 4:14 pm }

I worked with chinese colleagues in Amsterdam. Today One of them came over to my place, we had lunch and I showed him around my city.
Then I got the return invite: He will show me Beijing. Of course I can take my husband and small child.
Love the idea off the invite. No idea how hard it will be to make it happen. Ever.
oh, he also told me he came to europe to join his girl friend. After he finally got visas and tickets she cancelled the relationship… Talking about cancelling at the last moment….

14 loribeth { 07.30.17 at 11:15 pm }

I personally haven’t had the problem of people cancelling out on me at the last minute — but I definitely do notice a lot of “we should get together sometime” and then nobody does anything to organize or commits to anything. I also understand, from my mom friends, that the number of people who RSVP to party invitations these days is ridiculously low, and they wind up having to chase people down… even for Oldest Nephew’s wedding & his bride’s shower last year, SIL was still trying to track down people right up to the last minute.

I remember reading a personal essay about 10 years ago about a family that went en masse to a Caribbean resort where nobody had cellphone coverage, and how they all panicked — how would they know where people were & when & where to meet up if they couldn’t text each other?? etc . etc. They’d lost the skill (or, in the case of the younger people, never developed it) of making plans & sticking to them. They eventually did find their groove, and came to enjoy not being “on call” at every moment. A good lesson, I think. 😉

15 A. { 07.31.17 at 2:13 pm }

Oh, yes to that whole idea of the ostensible ‘soft yes’! In line with that, I find it really hard to get people to commit to a plan since the advent of cell phones. Once upon a time you had to call someone until you caught each other at home and set plans to get together. Now it’s all, “Yeah, totally, just shoot me a text on Saturday morning” fly by the seat of your pants noncommittal “plans” and those irritate me.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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