This post is about flakage. As in, flaking: standing somebody up when you had plans together. Fear not, this won’t be a gripe-fest—this blog is not a forum for me to complain about such stuff. In fact, I occasionally flake on people myself.
In this post, I’ll start by considering some of the common causes of flakage; the types of flakage; and the types of people who flake. Then I’ll unveil my Flakage Toolkit, perhaps our best weapon in the War on Flakage. (“What?” you’re asking, “There’s a War on Flakage?” Well, there is now.)
Causes of flakage
Of course there are all kinds of reasons that a person could fail to meet up with you as agreed. It would be pointless to try cataloguing all of them. But there are a few general categories that occur again and again. Here is my list of the top three:
Lack of inclination
Sometimes, a person will commit to something he or she really doesn’t want to do, because he or she just doesn’t know how to politely decline an invitation or reject a plan. I know this is a big problem because in my Health class in high school we did a whole unit on “Refusal Skills.” I went through a great number of drills practicing how to say no to drugs, alcohol, and sex (none of which, by the way, were ever actually offered to me). Those who didn’t pay attention in Health class as kids may now find themselves agreeing to plans they have not intention of carrying out. This buys them time to figure out how to wiggle out of the arrangement later. Often as not, they never face the music and never cancel the plans, and thus end up flaking.
Sometimes someone accepts an offer in good faith, only to discover that he totally forgot about something else he’d already committed to. He has every intention of letting you know, but never seems to be near the phone or the computer when he remembers to contact you. So he stands you up, and then tries in vain to remember to apologize.
Sometimes your friend accepts an offer in good faith, and doesn’t have any scheduled conflicts, but hours or even minutes before heading out, something happens and there’s no wiggle room in his oversubscribed life to let him recover. For example, the toddler suddenly projectile-vomits and thus can’t go to his play date. Or the dog escapes and heads for the hills. Or your friend’s spouse suddenly has to work late and will miss the carpool.
Types of flakage
As an early participant in the etymological life of the term “flakage,” I propose that we break down flakage into four categories.
Advance flakage is usually committed by person who is ambivalent about a suggested activity, and/or knows he’s disorganized and really isn’t sure of his availability, and/or or knows his life is too complicated to guarantee he’ll be able to keep any commitment. He’ll hem and haw and give you a less-than-certain answer when you propose the activity. That way, if he fails to show up, he didn’t really stand you up, exactly, because he never fully committed to the activity in the first place.
This happens when, due to any of the three causes listed above and/or any of the myriad other possible causes, the flaker cancels at the last minute rather than actually standing you up. The telltale sign of last-minute flakage is when your friend phones you up shortly before the meeting time and instead of asking a very quick question like “I forgot to ask, what should I bring?” he just shoots the breeze for awhile. It dawns on you that if he were keeping the appointment, he’d skip the chitchat since he’d be talking with you in person very shortly. The chitchat is his way of easing you into the bad news.
Last-minute flakage doesn’t always involve chitchat, of course. Often it involves your friend making a lavish explanation, like his toddler projectile-vomiting on his fleeing dog.
This is when somebody keeps you waiting awhile but eventually does show up. How aggravating this is naturally depends on how late the person is. Five minutes is a non-event. Twenty minutes is a bit of a problem, and so on. (Sometimes flakage will take a hybrid form. For example, quasi-last-minute flakage involves your friend calling to say he’ll be late.) In the worst case, your friend is so late that severe animosity develops, ruining the activity that you’re getting together for in the first place. Once, a friend of a friend was supposed to pick me up at Fremont Bart, which I can tell you is not a cool place to hang, and was like an hour and a half late. This person’s body was never found. Okay, I exaggerate—but we sure didn’t bond during the subsequent drive.
Of course quasi-flakage shouldn’t be confused with being “fashionably late.” (This term is a bit of a misnomer, I think. Appearing to be too busy to make it on time, or so popular as to be waylaid on your way to the meeting, will surely never go out of fashion.) There’s also what I call “mercifully late,” where it is assumed the hosts are behind in their preparations and the guests give them some extra time before showing up.
This is of course when the person simply doesn’t show. There is very little chance of anything mitigating the obnoxiousness of this. The person may attempt a retroactive advance flakage, claiming that he had never actually promised to come. Or the person may later describe how the dog almost asphyxiated on the toddler’s vomit and had to be hospitalized. Or, worst of all, the flakage is never explained or apologized for.
This occurs with spouses (or spouse equivalents) and can take several forms. One is that one member of a couple has gotten the time wrong and leads the other astray. Both parties are at fault because the person led astray should know by now not to trust his or her spouse. Another form of co-flakage is when a husband commits quasi-flakage or complete flakage because he does not know about the commitment his wife has made on his behalf. Both parties are at fault here, too, because surely the wife told the husband about it, but he wasn’t listening, and she should know better than to assume he was. (Of course either spouse can play either role here; I was merely avoiding “he/she” pronoun Hell.)
Types of flakers
Once again, I must be careful not to oversimplify. All kinds of people flake. But a thorough survey of flakage, which to my knowledge has never been conducted, would probably show that most flakage is carried out by one of four types of flaker. Here are those types.
By “pleaser” I mean the person who can’t bear to let somebody down, even for a moment, and who thus agrees to a plan he doesn’t have any intention of carrying out. This type of person is at high risk for both advance flakage and complete flakage. He has a tendency to suffer terribly after flaking, because admitting he let you down is terribly uncomfortable for him.
The Type B personality
The Type B personality actually means it when he says he’ll show up, but accidentally flakes because he’s literally unaware of what time it is and sometimes even what day it is. He’s not much for advance flakage because, not being the type to hold himself accountable for much, he doesn’t imagine that anybody else would hold him accountable either—so why hedge? This type also isn’t at serious risk for last-minute flakage, because he’s usually unaware that he’s even missing the rendezvous, so it wouldn’t occur to him to phone in the upcoming flakage. He is, of course, highly likely to commit quasi-flakage or complete flakage.
Note that the Type B flaker doesn’t always irritate the flakee: one Type B flaking on another Type B seldom causes any animosity. With B/B quasi-flakage, neither party notices if the other is late because time has almost no meaning for these people.
The friction generally develops when a Type B make plans with a Type A. For example, when I was on the UCSB cycling team, I made road trip plans with a Type B guy we called Sven (due to his utter lack of Nordic features). Sven was to pick me up at noon on Friday to drive to where the next day’s race would be held. At the stroke of noon I was waiting on the curb, bag packed. After twenty minutes I went inside and phoned him. No answer. For the next several hours I alternated between waiting on the curb and going inside to phone him. Finally I gave up and, around 3 p.m., while I was frantically going through my phone list looking for somebody else to get a ride with, Sven phoned me. I expected a litany of excuses for his being so late, but instead he simply said, “What’s up?” I asked if he was still going to the race. “Yeah, of course. How soon can you be ready?” I reminded him we’d agreed to meet at noon. He said, “Uh, yeah, so … what time is it now?”
The full name of this flaker is “pawn caught in a deadly game.” It refers to the person I alluded to above whose life is too complicated to allow appointments to always be confidently made and reliably kept. Working parents with commutes and day care and trick knees and old cars and demanding careers can build up pretty bad track records, but I cut them more slack than other types of flakers.
I don’t consider myself a flake, but I often feel like a pawn, or maybe a rook, caught in a deadly game. For example, this weekend I promised my wife I’d take our younger daughter to her soccer game. But I committed advance flakage by introducing a caveat: if my bike ride took too long, I’d have to phone her and bail out (i.e., commit last-minute flakage). My wife understood, because I was riding with my bike club, so how early I could be home depended on countless factors: how far we rode; how late everybody got started; how fast we all felt like riding; whether or not anybody punctured; etc. I ended up making good on the original plan, but committed quasi-flakage by getting home eight minutes later than the time we’d agreed on. Now, suppose my wife suddenly realized that we were supposed to bring snack to soccer game, meaning I would have to stop at the store on the way: then we’d be committing quasi-co-flakage. I would be partially responsible for it, given the hardship my own advance and quasi-flakage had added to my wife’s already complicated morning: hers would be a classic case of a pawn caught in a deadly game. But my wife is no flake, and we weren’t on snack duty, and Lindsay and I made it to the game with minutes to spare.
The career flaker
Some people are just flakes, and they have no excuse, and no remorse, and in fact basically never make good on anything. They’re different than the Type B flaker because he at least he does show up sooner or later most of the time, and has good intentions. The career flaker turns flaking into something close to a passive-aggressive act.
The Flakage Toolkit
You might be wondering, what’s the point of all this classification? Well, that’s where the Flakage Tooklit comes in. The Toolkit offers four forms of assistance in the War on Flakage:
- Some perspective, to ease the pain of being a flakee;
- A technique for preventing advance flakage;
- A method for dealing with Type B flakers;
- A handy reference chart for predicting flakage.
The Toolkit doesn’t include tips for reforming the flakers in your life. Attempting to change another person’s behavior is as difficult as gathering water in a sieve.
Perspective for the flakee
When somebody flakes on you, you’re going to feel dissed. This person has wasted your time, shown a lack of respect, and may end up making you—yes, you, the innocent party—feel lame. It’s hard not to take it personally when you’ve made plans that aren’t kept. If the flaker is somebody you consider a good friend, this can be even more painful.
Now that we’ve examined the various flakage modes, you may be better equipped to handle broken commitments. For example, it may be helpful, when making plans, to keep an eye out for advance flakage that might, to the untrained eye, look like actual commitment. Meanwhile, this is the time to identify disorganized, Type B, or overcommitted people and set your expectations accordingly. And if you’re entering into a complicated plan with various parties, you can gauge your own risk of inadvertently co-flaking. Above all, an appreciation of the causes of flakage, the types of flaker, and the reasons for flakage may help you take things less personally.
A final bit of perspective: when a close friend has flaked on you, ask yourself, has this person flaked before? If not, you can console yourself that this is just a fluke occurrence, not a sign of ill will or disrespect. If the friend has flaked on you before, you might consider whether he is a disingenuous pleaser, an unreliable Type B, or a career flaker with whom you should consider not making future plans.
Preventing advance flakage
I can recommend two ways of preventing advance flakage. One is to remove the RSVP component of the planned activity. For example, I’ll e-mail my bike club and ask if anybody wants to ride at such-and-such time, and get a rough count of who’s showing up—but I’ll make it clear that the group will not be waiting up for anybody who arrives late. A person isn’t likely to commit advance flakage if his response is not required, and nobody’s time will be wasted.
The other technique is more difficult and can be applied only gradually over a series of planned activities. It is based on my Refusal Skills training from Health class and involves teaching the spineless pleasers how to get over their discomfort with declining your invitation (or declining to respond). What you do is invite your pleaser friends to activities you’re pretty sure they’d not even be tempted to commit to. For example, I’ve sent e-mails to my bike club saying, “Would anybody like to ride up
Dealing with Type B flakers
Type Bs abound. Given the number of people who haven’t dropped dead of a heart attack, we have to assume that Type Bs may even be the majority. So how do we keep them from flaking on us?
The answer is, try to make plans that put you in charge of the activity. Consider my tale of woe about the road trip with Sven: my anguish stemmed largely from being dependent upon Sven for a ride. He may have been Type B and unpredictable, but at least he had a fricking car! As a college kid with no car, I had three options for future road trips: a) try to be a little more relaxed and set my expectations appropriately; b) try to find a Type A to drive me next time; or c) get my own car, and tell the Type B I’m leaving at such-and-such time, with or without him. (If I actually held to this and left him behind, he wouldn’t hold a grudge, because hey, he’s Type B!)
Handy reference chart
I truly believe that the key to not getting overly disgruntled about flakage is to set your expectations appropriately. For decades I labored under the misconception that most people out there were just like me—that is, when they made a commitment they kept it. As you can see from this post, I’ve gotten past that delusion. (In fact, I’ve come to realize that I myself am not as immune to committing flakage as I like to think.) Over the last few years, I’ve put together, in my head, a flakage reference chart that I use whenever I’m making plans with somebody. Here is that chart, presented in print for the very first time:
Blue indicates advance flakage. You can see how rampant it is!
Of course, this chart is really only a jumping-off point. The real value of the chart involves assigning each of your friends to an overall flakage profile, which can shift the entries in the right column up or down. For example, a Type B friend with a lousy track record might get the right column shifted up, so his custom chart would look like this:
On the other hand, if your friend has a perfect or near-perfect track record, he might merit this rare and elusive chart version:
The only thing that never changes is that last row. There will always be those who like to keep their options open.
Did I miss anything? Do you have further insight to contribute? Post a comment below, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be sure to respond. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ll get to it. I’ll try.
dana albert blog