You have plans with a friend who you don’t entirely trust to stick to said plans. You’ve agreed to a time and a place. You show up at the appointed time and place. Maybe 20 minutes later, you get a familiar text: They can’t make it after all. … Something came up; they’re tired; they’re hung over; they’ve got more stuff they need to do than they thought. You understand though, right? Hang soon?
All the while, your brain explodes with white hot rage.
Congratulations: Once again, you’ve been flaked upon.
For those who experience this from flaky friends regularly — or the even worse version, where the “had-to-deal-with-some-other-stuff” text is never even sent — it’s maddening in a way that’s apparently mystifying to the flaker. But why? What is it about sticking to plans — and more importantly, recognizing the wasted time and effort of the other party — that’s so hard to grasp? Are these people low-level sociopaths, or are you just not important to them as a person?
According to Kris Boksman, a clinical psychologist and clinic director at the Limestone Clinic in Ontario, there are a variety of reasons — the first of which is that flakers may lack the social skills to even realize that they’re flaking. “One social skill many people are still learning is assertiveness,” Boksman says via email. “Sometimes, if people don’t know how to communicate, they don’t really want to make the plans with you in the first place and they may end up agreeing to something they don’t want to do.” Basically, they felt awkward about not agreeing to meet you, but lacked either the tact to say so or the forethought to consider how that would eventually play out.
On the more sympathetic end of the scale, there’s a chance that the flaker might struggle with anxiety or depression, but not know how to express it. “Anxiety results in what appears to the casual observer to be massive flaking out, when really, the person is struggling seriously with feelings of fear, tension, dread or even panic,” Boksman says. “These people have a hard time controlling their worries, to the point that they become physically and emotionally ill with distress. These people may desperately want to make and stick to plans, but feel unable to deal with the consequence of having high levels of anxiety.”
If you’ve long suspected that the flaker is simply selfish, though, that may also be true. “In this case,” writes Boksman, “these kinds of people are more motivated to ‘look out for number one’ than to try to keep everyone in their social circle feeling valued and respected.”
In other words, yeah, they suck and it’s time to get new friends.
If you do decide to remain friends, you have a few options, the simplest being to simply cut them out of anything you consider especially meaningful. “You can take the stance of putting them to the side, where you don’t trust them with anything important,” says Scott Carroll, a psychiatrist and author of Don’t Settle: How to Marry the Man You Were Meant For. “That’s one way to limit the damage of what they do.”
The other, less pleasant option is to confront them about what they’re doing — or rather, not doing. Carroll says that if you know the person well enough, you can be direct with them, but warns that it’s likely the person may be offended or not want to hear it.
That’s why Boksman recommends tailoring your approach to the type of flaker you’re talking to. “If your friend is low on social skills, you could communicate that, when you make plans with him, this is a form of a social contract,” she writes. “This means that you expect that the plans will usually be kept, unless there’s a good reason why they need to be canceled.” If you’re dealing with a friend whose flakiness is related to the fact that they have trouble asserting themselves, she advises letting them pick the activity next time you meet — that way, you can be sure they really want to go.
If you think the flaker has anxiety, confronting that person might actually help them in the long run. “Recognizing that your friend has a mental health issue that needs attention, and supporting them in finding help, would be pretty amazing friendship material,” she writes, although she adds that in some cases they might not want to talk to you about it.
None of this, however, changes the underlying dynamic: “We can’t force people to change,” says Robyn King, a licensed mental health counselor at Schenectady Community College. “That’s an important thing to remember: The only control we have is our own behaviors.” This means that when you attempt to stop your friend from flaking on you, it’ll be entirely up to them how much effort they make to address the problem.
Ultimately, it will likely go one of two ways. Either it will make the friendship better — “If we have a difficult conversation and it opens the door to honest communication, that deepens the friendship,” says King — or it will end it completely. But as King points out, that may not be a bad thing. “If the conversation results in the other person getting mad and saying, ‘You’re a jerk, I don’t want to talk to you again,’ that serves a purpose, too.”
And she’s right, because either way, it means you’re no longer waiting outside a bar, checking your phone every five seconds and feeling like a chump.