The Culture of Bailing: Why We Love Cancelling Plans

We’ve all been there. On Monday morning, organising drinks with a friend on Thursday seems like a great idea, then by the time Thursday afternoon rolls round, you want nothing more to head home and watch an episode of Queer Eye. Before you know it, you’ve sent a quick WhatsApp message to say you’ve got way too much work on and that’s you over and out, wallowing in the bliss that comes with a few hours of unplanned free time. Maybe you create an either completely false or dramatised version of life chaos as a diversion tactic to stop the person you’re bailing on from feeling cross.

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Bailing on or cancelling plans has never been as socially acceptable. In the past six weeks or so, I would say that around half of my friends have either rearranged or cancelled plans. I don’t think this is a personal attack towards me; my friends are all good and brilliant people but a mix of technology and limited self-knowledge has turned us into a generation of flakes. Flakiness is of course different to cancelling plans because of illness or a genuine emergency; it’s the frequency of backing out and the reason for doing so that defines a true flake.

“The experts talk about ‘a lack of felt responsibility'”

Without sounding horribly sanctimonious, I can say with an element of smugness, that I am not a flake. I am many things, gobby, overly opinionated and usually 10 minutes late for everything (I was once late to be my friend’s bridesmaid), but I am reliable: if I say I will meet you on a certain date, then I will. Even if I’ve had the worst day, or I’m hungover or I have only episode of Sinner left, I will be there and you will have my undivided attention. I won’t make you feel that there’s anything else I’d rather be doing and will leave my phone in my bag. And, usually, even if I feel burnt out an hour before, seeing a friend I love and thinking about something other than myself does me good. I don’t stay late during these occasions, but I always come away feeling more buoyant than I did when I arrived.

If my closest friends do cancel on me, they do so with a hint of trepidation, lest they fall short of my sometimes impossibly high friendship standards. I know this means that I am not viewed as the laidback and breezy one in the group – something I’m okay with. But I do understand how easy it is to flake on plans today and why people do.

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Why we flake

Technology makes it very easy; smart phones give us more flexibility to cancel plans than ever before and without the same guilt of having to call someone. You don’t even have to worry that a person hasn’t received your text; WhatsApp will helpfully notify you with its double blue ticks. The experts call this “a lack of felt responsibility”.


“I think people find it much easier to cancel via text, Facebook and WhatsApp,” says Oxford University’s Professor Miles Hewstone, who specialises in social psychology. “You don’t actually have to call someone and admit you can’t/won’t come. Bailing shows a lack of empathy for the person whose party, dinner or drinks you’re not bothering to attend.”

WhatsApp and Facebook’s group chat functionality lends itself well to social loafing – the concept that people are less likely to make an effort when they are in a group. The more people in a group, the likelier that members will feel ‘deindividualisation’, which leads to a decrease in personal accountability.

“People contribute less to a group product the larger the group,” says Hewstone. “You feel less responsible when the group is large, so you don’t intervene to help people. To avoid people bailing on you, a smart move would be to tell people you’ve only invited a select few… that would increase their perceived responsibility.”


Another factor that influences our commitment to a plan is if something better arises, or in millennial terms, FOMO (fear of missing out). Neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and medical doctor Dr Tara Swart says the prevalence heightens this feeling.

“Our brains prefer instant gratification to delayed gratification – biologically, we are more sensitive to fear of missing out,” Swart told us. “Fear is our strongest emotion and our brain will seek to avoid feeling this feeling, as it correlates with increases in the stress hormone cortisol which can erode our immunity and damage our mental resilience. As more and more people bail because something ‘better’ comes up at the last moment, it seems more socially acceptable within the herd mentality.”

The millennial generation (of which I myself am included) have long been described as being deeply self-obsessed; we have been dubbed, somewhat cruelly, the ‘Me Me Me Generation” – and the popularisation of the selfie is just one example. Etiquette expert William Hanson says that our resistance to honouring commitments displays a similar level of selfishness.

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‘I don’t feel like it’ is now a common reason for making a last-minute cancellation when really we should have had the self-knowledge to know what our future desires might be – although plans on Thursday feel good now, if you know you also have plans Monday to Wednesday, the likelihood is that you’ll be burnt out by Thursday. People-pleasers often fall into this category – they don’t want to say no to an invitation out of fear of disappointing anyone, but end up over-stretching themselves and cancelling last minute which leads to an even greater disappointment for the bailed upon.

“It shows that people are putting themselves first, and good manners are selfless not selfish,” said Hanson. “I think too many people now bail without fully accepting or thinking about the consequences to the other person. To bail once is perhaps forgivable, but it’s a slippery slope and can form bad habits if people are ‘allowed’ to get away with it continually.”



The impact of bailing

While bailing is more pervasive than ever, the way our brain processes someone cancelling on us remains the same. So, even if society has altered norms, making it easier to cancel, we still react to a cancellation like we always have done – it hurts. Our brains are at odds with the societal adjustment.

“If someone cancels on us, it still affects the brain like a social pain or psychological threat to our safety,” says Swart. “Something called ‘loss aversion’ means we are twice as affected by a perceived loss than an equivalent gain, so being bailed on feels much worse when we are on the receiving end than it does when we do it to someone else. It is important to use empathy to imagine how you would feel and respond if someone bailed on you before you decide to do it to them.”

Having empathy – or a lack thereof – also influences a person’s predisposition to being flakey; the level to which you understand and share the feelings of another will strongly influence how you yourself act.

“The bailed upon feel very let down,” added Hewstone. “They perhaps see that those valued relationships are not worth much. They may then bail on someone else next.”

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The scientific benefits of sticking to a plan

While we all want to be seen as chilled, easy-going people, who are not the least bit irritated when a friend cancels at the last minute, there are reasons our brains often react with annoyance and hurt. Our minds scientifically need calm and consistency.

“Sticking to plans gives you more certainty – which the brain likes (whereas it perceives change and “the new” as a threat) – and creates an atmosphere of trust around you,” explains Swart. “Trust is an attachment emotion that bonds people together – in both loving and social relationships, through the hormone oxytocin. This hormone makes us feel safe and warm and lower our guard. Trust breeds trust, so if we act consistently people are less likely to bail on us.”

If you must, here’s how to bail respectfully

So we know it’s not ideal to flake in terms of our mental wellbeing and the stability of our relationships with others. But sometimes life happens – we double book, cross wires over dates or feel run down and need to bow out and look after ourselves. However, there is a way of cancelling with courtesy that still makes the bailed upon person still feel treasured and important; suggest another date that works for them and apologise sincerely. Unfortunately, that comes with having to make a phone call rather than send a flippant message.

“Don’t hide behind a screen,” says Hanson. “Have the guts to explain the situation in person, rather than taking the cowards approach. If you are cancelling on a friend who was hosting you at their house, then sending flowers or similar with a handwritten note saying how sorry you are may help to diffuse any resentment or irritation from your host.”

Whatever you do, don’t cancel on them again in quick succession if you want your apology to sound sincere – and if you want people to turn to in times of need.

“When bailing you want to make sure your motive is genuine and valid, because there will always be an occasion where some disaster in our personal lives happens and you have to bail for really serious and legitimate reasons,” says Hanson. “If you have cried wolf before then few friends will understand and be there for you when something serious happens.”

From: Harper’s BAZAAR UK