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“In terms of instant relief, canceling plans is like heroin.”
So says modern-day sage and tall child John Mulaney in his stand-up special New In Town. And while I have no experience with heroin, if it’s anything like the whole-body, bone-deep sense of release you get when you were going to have to go and do things and now you don’t have to go do anything … I’ll still take canceling plans. It’s cheaper.
Most of us say yes to too many things. As I write this I have one eye on the clock because I’m supposed to go to a tech talk, then meet someone for drinks, before going home to keep packing before I move house this weekend. I’d enjoy all of that (except the packing) but at this moment in time, I would enjoy not doing it more (especially the packing) — so I’m going to bail.
Ditching the panel and/or my friend (sorry, Jess) is not the most polite choice, but it’s the healthy choice. It will lower my stress levels, allow me to go to bed earlier, and save me money that I would have spent on buses, Ubers, and wine. But most importantly, I’ll get to feel that whole-body relief.
Ditching in order to do nothing is, unequivocally, self-care. But there are ways to do it without being a dick.
When you fail to look after yourself by saying no to things in the first place — or just find yourself without the energy, money, or time to follow through with plans you’ve made — sometimes the best move for you is to bail on something you’ve previously said yes to, whether it’s dinner with a friend or a Tinder date you’re not enthusiastic about.
If you bail on someone, there’s a chance they’ll be just as relieved as you, and you can both enjoy that no-plans high. But they probably actually wanted to spend time with you, and there’s no question that it’s still rude to cancel at short notice, even if the other person’s OK with it.
(Sidebar: Ditching on prior plans because you got an invite to a cooler, more fun social event is not self-care. Please do not use these tips for evil.)
The easiest thing you can do to cushion this etiquette violation is to be upfront, if you can. Don’t make up a story about your sick axolotl or a work emergency. Kate Leaver, a London-based journalist, , and author of The Friendship Cure, favors honesty wherever possible.
“I’d just go with the truth, or as much of it as you feel comfortable sharing. A little ‘Will you forgive me if we reschedule dinner tonight?’ or a bit of ‘Do you mind if I cancel brunch this weekend?’ is absolutely fine,” Leaver says. “If it’s a health related thing, you could say so, because transparency is always good and it’s nice to alert your buddy that you might need a little extra TLC.”
“I feel one should always tell the truth, and not be tempted to exaggerate in any way as you will trip yourself up,” agrees Phillip Sykes, principal of the British School of Etiquette. “It is important that you make the other person feel comfortable and respected.”
And, Leaver adds, if it’s someone you’re close with, they’ll get it. “I’ve said to people before ‘You know I adore you but right now I just need to be in my pajamas in front of the telly.’ I generally only speak like that to people I know won’t mind; people I’m really close to who already know I’m an introvert who gets depressed sometimes (and also just really likes watching telly in pajamas).”
Whatever other excuse you give, whether it’s true or not, you’re telling your friend that it’s more important than your plans.
“That’s why it helps to be honest about needing time to yourself,” Leaver says, “because it’s much harder to take personally.”
Don’t overdo that ‘sorry’ text
Take care not to overdo the groveling.
“I feel that apologizing once is more than enough and you then need to move on from the conversation,” says Sykes. “By apologizing too much you will end up making a mountain out of a molehill or digging yourself a hole.”
A simple “I’m so sorry, let’s do it next week if you can?” is far preferable to “omg i’m the worst flake ever do you hate me” or “sowwieee i’m baby uwu.” Be a fucking adult.
When to lie or not give an excuse
If you’re bailing on someone you don’t feel comfortable talking to about your attack of anxiety, period pain, or all-consuming misanthropy rendering you unfit for human interaction, you can lie. Don’t think twice about fibbing to save you both the awkwardness of unnecessary intimacy.
only cancel culture I care about is cancelling plans last minute citing “slammed with work right now” and/or “coming down with something” and then doing absolutely nothing instead
— Tim Murphy (@timothypmurphy) September 18, 2019
“If you don’t know someone so well, or you don’t feel ready to be candid about your real reason for canceling, then I think you can excuse a small white lie,” says Leaver.
Sykes disagrees, advocating honesty as both the most polite and practical option. “If you were to tell a white lie, the likelihood of you being found out is fairly high,” he says.
But another underrated approach, particularly if you’re not a fan of white lies, is to actually not give an excuse — as long as you’re canceling with enough notice that you don’t have to fake an emergency. Simply saying no without an excuse is a skill that will serve you well if you’re trying to stop overcommitting, and this is a cousin of that: For someone you don’t know well, just say, “Hey, I’m so sorry but I can’t make it tonight any more” and make the effort to reschedule, if you can.
Give enough notice
The amount of notice you give matters as well — if there’s any chance they’re already on their way to meet you, then I’m sorry, but canceling now would make you a dick.
“I think the same day is acceptable, but only if it’s before the other person has started to get ready to leave the house or their office. That morning, if possible, would be great, so they have the chance to make other plans,” advises Leaver.
“Try and think about how annoyed you’d be if someone canceled on you and behave according to that measure.”
Don’t make it a regular thing
Most importantly, try and notice if bailing becomes a pattern for you.
Not only are you telling your friends and acquaintances and potential bang buddies that they just don’t matter to you, but it suggests either you’re constantly overcommitting or actually just not coping with your social life even at a normal level.
And like any drug, the high of canceling plans will wear off if you overdo it, or if you’re doing it just to feel something.
Bail responsibly, and the sweet release of making a last-minute date with nothing and nobody will remain within easy reach.