None of us revel in flaking. Flaky friends – those unreliable few for whom making a reservation for dinner represents marriage-contract-levels of commitment – are the bane of all of our carefully-diarised lives. But off the back of 12 meetings, four working lunches, one bridesmaid dress fitting and zero early nights, who hasn’t found themselves sending that inevitable “sorry to be annoying, but could we reschedule…” WhatsApp message?
“Our nebulous work life balance means we set plans for the future with good intentions, but on the day, we’re exhausted,” explains psychologist Emma Kenny. The truth is, at 5.30pm on a Thursday, the need for a moment of peaceful reflection (in bed, with a block of cheese and an episode of The Great British Bake Off) can be overwhelming.
“We forget that being with friends makes us happy and energised,” continues Kenny. “And the more we flake, the further our work life dynamic slips out of sync.”
More often than not, we can justify our flake. We know that “I’m so tired I can’t speak” means ‘I’ve had a hell of a day and can’t face making conversation’, and “I’m so sorry, I totally forgot” translates as ‘I was counting on you to cancel’. Still, there’s nothing like an “I was looking forward to seeing you” text from a friend – complete with a crying emoji – to leave us feeling shamefaced.
“The immediacy of our Tinder era means we make and ditch plans at the touch of a button, without having to face up to the emotional fallout in person,” says Kenny. “You don’t even have to phone your friend and have an awkward conversation. The digital age has deconstructed communication, which encourages our bad habits.”
And encouraged them it has. A survey conducted by the social app Badoo found 43% of us have cancelled plans through social media – and according to a poll of 2,000 people by public research organisation ICM, half of us report our hectic schedules have caused us to lose touch with friends.
If you’re constantly flaking on your friends, you might want to come along to this year’s Stylist Live. On Saturday 11 November, we’ll be discussing how to survive full-on work days while still staying social, sharing expert tips on how to keep deadlines, stand out in meetings and avoid cancelling on plans.
In the meantime, here are a few rules to consider before bailing…
RULE #1: Flake authentically
Should you wish to sack off that dinner party in the remotest of remote suburbs and eat an M&S pasta salad in front of Broad City, that is your prerogative. It is the delivery method of your flake that will make or break a friendship.
Any form of public bail seems too flippant, so take social media out of the equation. Making your excuse via a WhatsApp group has an inconsiderate whiff about it, as you risk setting off a domino of cop-outs among other attendees.
A one-to-one text is a step closer to good manners, but, says Kenny, “Texting seems like an easy way of avoiding the consequences, but that power play – you’re not worth a conversation – plants suspicion between friends.”
So, in order to let your friend down gently, you need to make an actual retro phone call. If Justin Bieber can repeat “sorry” 19 times in the space of one song, then you can say it 20 times in your conversation.
“Chatting opens an equal, authentic dialogue,” Kenny advises. So be honest and say if you’re just so hungover you’re good for nothing but eating salt and vinegar Hula Hoops on the sofa. “Authenticity is vital: a good friend will understand if you don’t feel able to go out, but fibbing undermines even the strongest friendships.”
RULE #2: Know your flakes
There are four distinct kinds of flake: the ‘upgrade flake’, the ‘panic flake’, the ‘better offer flake’ and the ‘repeat flake’.
An upgrade flake is when you redeem your no-show with a major enhancement on your original plan. (You don’t need a gold-plated copy of Debrett’s to know that palming a friend off with the promise of Pizza Express on an unspecified Tuesday next month is not cool.)
“Creating a positive outcome for your friend sends a clear message: we’re still going to have our time, because you’re important to me,” says Kenny. She suggests booking tickets to see an exhibition that your friend has been raving about.
The ‘panic flake’ is a product of wobbly emotional territory. Perhaps your nightmare boss is going to be at the event tonight, maybe you’re freaked out after checking the insanely expensive menu for the restaurant your friends have decided upon, or dreading being the only single person in a roomful of couples. Whatever’s activated your insecurities, the key to gaining understanding is to show your vulnerability, advises Kenny.
“Put yourself on the line and give friends the opportunity to support you,” she advises. “This way, you both still gain something constructive from the date in your diary: your friends hear what you need and are emotionally there for you.”
Read more: 50 female friendships in movies
Then there’s the ‘better offer flake’. Occasionally, the temptation to snap up the very last ticket to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, or to accept drinks with your boss when she wants to “discuss your future at the company” is just too great.
“Honesty is key: your friend’s feelings may be a little hurt that you’ve got a better offer, but she’ll feel more wounded if you lie to her,” says Kenny.
Finally, the ‘repeat flake’. “Endless flaky behaviour compounds your friend’s hurt, so you need to offer more than an excuse,” adds behavioural psychologist Dr Peter Collett, who recommends grovelling and a gift. “Flowers delivered to her office are even more effective coming from flaky friends than they are from errant boyfriends, as the gesture is unexpected,” he says.
And there’s more: expect your friend to sit on her hands and not invite you anywhere until you’ve arranged the next night out, and come good on your promise.
RULE #3: Ditch the all-dancing excuses
To paraphrase Jane Austen, “it is a truth universally acknowledged that the person who flakes is usually in a much better mood than the person flaked on”. (Austen didn’t say that? Let her lawyers do their worst).
“Most flaky excuses serve to ease our own conscience; they disconnect us from our friends’ feelings and put our own issues at the centre of the conversation,” says Kenny.
So bear in mind that anything elaborate and overdeveloped, like “I got my heel caught in the escalator and had to wait all night for the fire brigade to cut me out,” is not only as convincing as “a unicorn ate my homework”, but also has the effect of riding roughshod over your friend’s feelings.
If you want a night in, you need to step out of the limelight altogether and let your friend’s emotions take centre stage. This decree extends to social media. Posting anything that suggests you’re enjoying your flake night is a no-no. You’re permitted to Instagram beans eaten cold from the can to demonstrate your penitence, but that’s your limit.
RULE #4: Say “no” to your “yes” impulse
We know deep down that saying “yes” to be nice is not very nice if you later cancel. “Most of us are likely to give the easy answer – yes – now, because we put off negative emotions to deal with later, conveniently putting the fact we’re going to break our friends’ trust to the back of our minds,” says Dr Collett.
But how do you actually say ‘no’ without losing friends? If you’re struggling with answering directly, time management expert Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most Of Their Time, recommends a response like “Can I look at my calendar and email you?”
Accepting you cannot do everything is the golden rule of time management. Women have an average of 166 Facebook friends and only 365 days in the year, so it’s practical to acknowledge you’ll struggle to attend every birthday party, leaving do and housewarming.
“It’s better to take on fewer engagements than to overcommit and flake,” adds Vanderkam. “Feeling rushed and pulled in multiple directions is stressful and unsustainable.”
Ultimately, says Kenny, the art of saying no is born from the self-assurance that the first person you need to say to yes is yourself.
“You have to prioritise your own wellbeing, so before you accept an invitation ask three questions: ‘Will I have enough sleep?’; ‘Do I have enough money?’; ‘Is there enough time to see the core people I care about most?’ If the answers to any of these questions is no, then ‘no’ is your answer.”
RULE #5: It’s OK to gamble on your friend bailing first. Because she probably will
A story about flaking would not be complete without recognising JOFO – the secret joy of flake-outs. Ah, the twin feelings of rejection and relief when a flaky friend triangulates perfectly with our own desire to bail! “Oh gosh, is it tonight we’re supposed to do a thing?” she asks.
“Hey, don’t worry, we can reschedule if you’re busy,” you say generously, perched atop the moral high ground, with one leg already in your PJs.
One of the greatest gifts you can give a friend is more me-time, says Vanderkam, who points to a recent study showing the average 30-something woman gets just 17 minutes a day to devote to herself.
“We should all take advantage of every pocket of free time that pops up: get a massage, indulge in the luxury of an early night or a Netflix binge – do whatever makes you happy,” she advises.
“The beauty of friendship is that you give each other space to juggle many balls, safe in the knowledge that when she drops the ball with your name on it she can pick it up again,” adds Dr Collett.
And bearing in mind your flaky friends could be pledging a bail-free future as they read this right now, you may never get the chance to experience JOFO again. Enjoy it while you can.
Stylist Live brings everything you love about Stylist magazine to life across three days of experts, interviews, comedy, food, beauty and fashion exclusives. 10-12 November, Olympia London. Find out more at live.stylist.co.uk