The texts invariably start with something like, "Hey, I'm so sorry but..." Something has suddenly come up — a terrible migraine or a pet cat having an allergic reaction. The person I made plans with isn't going to make it. By this point I'm usually fully dressed, about to walk out the door. Sometimes I'm already on my way, or the party has started. Usually, I shrug it off. I have to cancel plans sometimes, too.
But over the past year or so, my friends and I have started to sense that people are "flaking" a lot more often. When people flake — commit to plans and then either cancel at the last minute or simply don't show — it raises a lot of questions. Most importantly, why? Is it us, or them? Or, is something bigger happening?
Research in psychology may give us a few answers.
A Few Flakes and Feeling Flaky
Think of that serial flaker in your friend group who everyone knows not to wait on to get the festivities started. They've developed something of a reputation for not showing. That may be more common among some personality types, says Richard Koestner, a professor of psychology who studies personality and motivation at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.
"It reflects some narcissism and lack of concern for how people feel. Less of the trait of agreeableness," he notes.
Agreeableness is a personality trait associated with being cooperative and unselfish. Another relevant personality trait, Koestner says, is something psychologists call conscientiousness. The American Psychological Association defines it as "the tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking." People who rank low in conscientiousness are more likely to be disorganized, overbook themselves and not follow through — in other words, flake.
Then there's the simply human side of it. You can probably think of a time when you committed to something in the future that, when the time finally came, you just didn't feel like doing it, like starting a diet, or a new spin class — all of those new year's resolutions. In the abstract, the idea of being healthy and fit is appealing. Later on when we actually have to put in the effort, we find that other things have gotten in the way; we're feeling tired or overwhelmed.
The ability to predict your emotional reaction to events in the future is called "affective forecasting." Research shows people generally tend to overestimate the positive aspects of an event they planned in the future.
"The abstract idea is to have a more positive relationship with my friends — taking them to the airport, or helping them move. Yes, I want to be someone who shows up for my friends!" says Tabitha Kirkland, a lecturer at the University of Washington. "On the day of, you're not thinking abstractly, you're thinking of the minute details of what it will take to get there."
A New Culture of Flaking
It's not your imagination that flaking has gotten more common in the last decade. Research shows it's just easier to flake in the digital age. Kurt Gray, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has been looking into, as he puts it, "whether technology makes you a jerk."
"Distance can allow people to screw people over," Gray says. "Since technology puts some distance between you and someone else, you could argue technology is just distance."
In other words, it's a lot easier to text someone to let them know you're canceling plans than to call and tell them over the phone. It's even easier to hit the non-committal "Interested" button on a Facebook event and decide not to go at the last minute. Being flaked on in this way can feel dehumanizing — treating people as if they don't have thoughts or feelings.
Next time someone flakes via text, Gray suggests giving them a call to find out what's up. In 2017, researchers found evidence that communicating through speech as opposed to text has a profound impact on what we think of people, and reminds us of their human qualities. Reinforcing that human connection through a quick call may go a long way in preserving a friendship.
Koestner's advice is to give people the benefit of the doubt the first time they flake. If it happens more than once, it might be worth letting them know how it made you feel.
"That might backfire, but it's useful to learn that it may not be a relationship you want to be in," Koestner says. "And if it's a dating situation get the heck out and focus on someone who's interested in remembering to show up."
And if you're the flake? University of Washington's Kirkland recommends that you put yourself back in the abstract mindset. Reminding yourself of why you committed to something in the first place — the vision you have for yourself and your life — may help motivate you to not back out when you're feeling flaky.