Why Bailing and Flaking Remains Shitty Behavior – Despite What Some Say

lady in red eating and drinking wine

When I first moved to California at age 24, I took a job at CAA,  one of the top talent agencies in the world. Assistants were almost always overworked, underpaid, and trying to plot their rise to the top of the entertainment world. Networking was paramount, and, well, I wasn’t very good at it. Early in my  tenure working for a TV agent, I recall making Friday night plans with an assistant at a production company, only to learn that he was canceling a half-hour before I was about to leave. When I pressed him for a reason for his last-minute change of heart,  all he could say was: “I don’t know. I just don’t feel like going out. What are you making such a big deal about?”

My big deal was that I was stuck home alone because  he changed  his mind on a whim. Where I’m from, that’s not cool. In his version of events,  he wasn’t inconsiderate and flaky; I was  an uptight New Yorker holding his feet to the fire for no reason. He did nothing wrong; I should just chill.

It’s not much of a story, but it’s the first time it was seared into my brain that different regions place different values on one’s word. In New York, you say you’re going to do something, you do it, unless there’s a death in the family. After over 20 years in California, I’ve learned that people routinely say yes to things they have no intention of attending and  often double book plans to choose the option they like best. Thus, “plans” are rarely written in pen, but traced out in pencil, open to change at any time.

Enter David Brooks, one of my favorite cultural commentators –  an eminently reasonable, moral and moderate man, who wrote this piece about “bailing.”

“Bailing is one of the defining acts of the current moment because it stands at the nexus of so many larger trends: the ambiguity of modern social relationships, the fraying of commitments, what my friend Hayley Darden calls the ethic of flexibility ushered in by smartphone apps – not to mention the decline of civilization, the collapse of morality and the ruination of all we hold dear.

Bailing begins with a certain psychological malady, with a person who has an ephemeral enthusiasm for other people but a limited self-knowledge about his or her own future desires. In the abstract, the offer to meet up with an interesting person seems great, or at least marginally interesting. The people pleaser wants to make everybody happy so says yes to every invitation, with the unconscious knowledge that he can back out later.”

The bailer thinks this is a victimless crime, but it’s not. Someone else’s night has been shot. Someone else’s party has been altered. Someone else’s ego has taken a hit. All because, some time, between saying “Yes” and the actual event, the yes turned into a no. Or vice versa.

The bailer thinks this is a victimless crime, but it’s not.

My wife and I once planned to throw a Valentine’s Day cocktail party with friends and sent out an Evite to maybe 20 couples. After only 4 RSVPd yes, we decided we’d turn it into a dinner party and, instead of drinks, we made an exquisite three-course meal for our guests. Right before dessert, two hours after the dinner party started, one notoriously flaky couple showed up, completely unaware that they were walking in on a dinner party they were not expected to attend. After all, they didn’t RSVP the first time and didn’t pay attention to the follow-up change of plans. Awkward.

Not that I think I’m changing society with these moral screeds against flaky people, but I kind of liked the  three moral hurdles  Brooks lays out to make bailing acceptable.

“First, is it for a good reason (your kids unexpectedly need you, a new kidney became available for your transplant) or is it for a bad reason (you’re tired, you want to be alone)?

Second, did you bail well (sending an honest text, offering another date to get together) or did you bail selfishly (ghosting, talking about how busy your life is, as if you were the only person who matters)?

Third, did you really think about the impact on the other person? (I’ve learned it’s almost always a mistake to bail on somebody’s life event – wedding, birthday party, funeral – on the grounds that your absence won’t be noticed.)”

I concur with Brooks that the smartphone makes all plans disposable. When flaking is as easy as ignoring an Evite update, changing your status from Maybe to No on Facebook Events, or sending a quick, impersonal text that says “Sorry, can’t make it!” we’ve taken all of the sting out of face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) interactions.

In other words, technology makes it so easy to bail without consequences that people routinely bail without consequences. (See “Ghosting.”)

Technology makes it so easy to bail without consequences that people routinely bail without consequences.

After 21 years in California, I have finally adjusted. People here are still as flaky as ever. (“We should totally hang out!” means as much as “We should totally  create world peace!”) The only difference between 24-year-old me and 45-year-old me is that the younger version got mad and took things personally, where the older one just relegates flaky people to acquaintance status without a word.

Are you a bailer who overcommits? Or are you the person who gets flaked upon? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  1. 1

    Love this piece, Evan.

    I too come from an area where it’s quite normal to get a text from someone on the afternoon of your event saying “Sorry, not going to make it. Have fun!” or “Was hoping to come, but something came up. I had one friend who would routinely rock up an hour and a half late for our plans due to having “overslept” and another friend who would cancel a couple of hours before as a matter of course. To add insult to injury, these weren’t even plans I initiated. These were plans  they  had made with me. What the hell drives that mentality? For someone to specifically go out of their way to make plans with someone else, only for them to be the ones to break them? Is it an ego thing?  With both those friends I did eventually draw a line in the sand and I made it clear to them that their behaviour would not fly with me any more.

    I too used to take it personally, and spent years feeling hurt and confused, not being able to understand it, wondering what I could do differently with these people. These days, I see it for the dodgy behaviour that it is. These days, the only people who get admitted to my inner circle are people who prove a certain standard of behaviour, and that behaviour includes manners, respect and consideration. I have a “three strikes and you’re out” rule. I’ll invite someone to an event or make plans with them, and if three times in a row they bail or flake, then they don’t get invited again. Like Evan, I downgrade these people to acquaintance status without a word, knowing that I have enough friends that I don’t need to make space for people who make me feel shitty in any way. The result has been that I now have a group of people in my life who can always be counted on to make an effort for me, and I don’t have to worry too much about the rest.

    As far as my own behaviour goes, I make sure that I don’t go long periods of time without seeing my friends. So even if I do decline one invitation, I’ll accept the next one. If I have seen the person recently and I receive an invite from them which I can’t or don’t feel like accepting, then I decline respectfully. Likewise if I’m not sure I can make it, I say “I’ll let you know” and then I  do  let them know with enough notice. Essentially, I just apply the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would want to be treated.

  2. 2

    “We should totally  create world peace!”


    I don’t know if I would have seated that extra couple, though.   I may honestly not have had enough food and if I seat them, won’t they think it’s okay to just show up in future?

    Not very graceful of me, but most of my friends know I’m a rather relenteless planner.   I send a ton of follow-up e-mails (or Evite does).

    Now I think I should have extra food. 🙂   Can’t make world peace without food. 🙂

  3. 3
    j k

    This is such a great article/ post! Like the author, I too have had my share of hurt feelings and anger when people have canceled last minute. I do not think it’s determined by state or region – I think it’s determinded by a number of factors; including how you were brought up – and it’s also about how important are trust and accountability to your “friend”? My group of friends have varying degrees of self-awareness /values and are from all over the country (Ca, Fl, NY, Tx, etc). Bailing selfishly, as the author so accurately described, is completely annoying!!  Showing no gratuity whatsoever for the invite or the opportunity to attend something – to me, shows exactly who you’re dealing with. A selfish person. As I’ve gotten older, I’ll pass on making plans with particular type of person and will stick closer to those who appreciate the invite, and who can properly make plans and who can also politely cancel them with finesse and respect for everyone involved.

  4. 4


    As a far northerner, I am still astounded at the level of bailing that goes on here in Colorado. Living in an isolated mountain town, there’s no dating pool and few folk I can ask for help.   Meeting new folk is a major undertaking that involves much planning, rescheduling, and a minimum of a 50 mile round trip on mountain roads. I work full time, so time to do home repairs etc is also limited, so yeah, it really sucks when folk bail last minute or do not show with no explanation. A disabled neighbor asks me for help with heavy lifting, hard chores because though I’m smallish, I show up.   I   see this behavior extending into rships where there is oft little correlation between actions, words, feelings, leaving one not knowing where one stands. Used to hate on myself for this stuff happening until I realized this sort of thing never happened up North.

  5. 5

    I’m from the Northeast US, lived in LA for about 8 years of the time period Evan’s been there, and have been in Seattle for about 12 years.   I miss LA — Seattle’s so bad in this respect that I’ve downgraded *all* of the people I know here from “friends” to “acquaintances.”   It sucks.

    (note: guys here follow through on planned in-person dates reliably… gotta love how powerful a motivator the mere hint of the possibility of eventual sex is 🙂 )

  6. 6

    I am so happy I am not the only one who noticed this about Californians! I was beginning to think I was crazy. This ridiculous and inconsiderate behavior unfortunately extends into the business side of life also. Only in CA did I have business gatherings scheduled weeks in advanced canceled on me and my group 30 minutes before they were supposed to start, with not so much as an apology or an offer of an alternative. We do business in most every lower 48 state and CA folks are by far the worst, i would much rather be sent to rural Louisiana than San Fran 🙂

  7. 7

    Agreed.   Great Article!   I agree with the author on this; flaky behavior demotes your status in my book (yes, business associates/clients also…they get a bit more grace, but not much).   I run my own company and my time is my most precious asset, and it must be respected, friends and business associates alike; you only get to waste it ONCE (without good reason).   No need to announce it, just treat as forgone conclusion and put that “friend”   to the outer circle if they are somewhat entertaining, and delete completely if not.   Trust me, they will hardly notice anyway.     It’s so important to watch who you associate with and do business with.   And yes, it’s ok to fire a flaky client, we’ve done it and it worked out fine.   Someone else who was better fit took their place.   It’s so important to be vigilant who you have in your inner circle.   They affect you and your energy.

  8. 8
    Mrs Happy

    I’ve one friend who makes his son attend whichever party/gathering his son has already RSVP’ed to, even if a subsequent invitation is preferred, and I think this is good manners, but I suspect it’s old-fashioned behaviour, and not the norm now.

    I don’t have many friends who flake and I think it’s because I stop being friendly with people who do it repeatedly, though I do make allowances and give new people more than one chance at this.   But if everyone commenting here culls these people from close friendship groups or downgrades their status, is there then some special flaky remaining group full of the flakes who all flake on each other?   Either that or they have some friends they never flake on and the people commenting here are the flaked-upon victims.   Or we all do it sometimes but forget our own faults while others’ flakiness is seared into our minds…

    I tend to flake a little for work-related events especially ones held of an evening after a full day at work, and reading this article reminds me that I should try not to do this, because someone has had to organise the event, even though it’s a work not a social thing.   I’m not talking about work meetings at which I’d be missed, but about dinners/drinks with very large groups of colleagues and I sort of assume that others won’t really care if I show up.

    One thing I’ve noticed over the last year which has annoyed me is the following.   Sometimes at very short notice I feel like doing an exercise-related activity with some company, e.g. bushwalking locally or something, so I fire off a phone text to half a dozen local women friends, to see if anyone can join me.   (When younger I used to prefer to bushwalk with someone because of the snakebite risk, and now it’s because I realise other humans are the problem.   Sad.)   Now my invitation is very last minute – in an hour or three – and thus quite frankly I am grateful if any one of them say yes, as we’ve all got busy lives.   But some never say yes, ever,   yet when I run into them later, they say they really want me to keep inviting them.   I’ve been wondering why this irritates me so, and also how many times is enough, to invite someone to something they never attend.   One woman at a party who heard about the bushwalking   (I’d never texted her) even took me aside to explain she wouldn’t be able to walk this year, but could from next year on.   Seriously I’d just met this woman at the party – I felt like she wanted me to be her social secretary assistant, and keep in my mind (already full of my own stuff) her calender.   Jeeezzz!   Another mum did that to me too – semi accepted an invitation for our daughters to do a club together regularly, but asked me to remind her about it each month…. um, no way, I have my own family’s calender to organise and I’m not your social secretary.   Her daughter didn’t get to come.

  9. 9

    Hopefully this will not come across as generalization or stereoryping, I’m just telling a story from my limited experience.

    Some years ago, for the sake of adventure and experience, I spent a year as a volunteer in a kibbutz in Israel. There I spent my days and nights working, partying, travelling and talking to young people of dozens of nationalities and ethnicities, from 4 continents, with all racial and religious (or non-religious) backgrounds. People from all over Europe, South America and Mexico, South Korea, South Africa, Algeria, Ethiopia, United States and, of course, Israel.

    One thing we noticed and sometimes talked among us is how inconsistent, flaky and casual with words the Americans were, to the point it seemed words and plans had no meaning for them. For example, it frequently happened that a gal or a guy was enthusiastic about meeting you “OMG, I’m so happy to meet you! Everybody wants to talk to you, everybody wants to meet you, you seem such a great person, we should grab a drink and have a talk soon!”

    Then you meet the same gal or guy, sometimes after a few hours, and he/she barely notices your presence, like they had never seen you before.

    It happened often enough that most non-Americans noticed it and sometimes we talked about it: “What’s wrong with them? They seem so happy to see you and then it’s like you don’t exist. Maybe throwing words about what a great person you are and how they would like to spend some time with you means nothing, it’s just their way of saying hello. Because when we say: Happy to meet you, we should drink a beer together, we mean just that.”

    Sometimes we used to mock their affected, high-pitched, over-the-top enthusiastic and fake tone: “Oh my God, I’m so happy to meet you…” and then we added, with the same fake voice, “now you can fuck off!”.

    Granted, this is my limited experience with a limited sample of people. I remember that the only American guy who didn’t have this flaky, fake attitude was a first generation Cuban immigrant.

  10. 10

    Thank you for posting this Evan.   Flakiness is one of my major pet peeves.   I see it ALOT in both men and women.   I hate to beat up on my generation, but I really do believe this ambiguity started with the baby boomer generation and has worsened with each successive generation. My generation rarely said “Yes, I will attend your party” it was always something like “Oh, yeah, I might swing by” or some such flakey phrase.    Growing up I was that oddball “uptight” chick who wanted a solid plan.   The flakers and bailers never thought   they did anything wrong by leaving me with no plan for a weekend night, the problem was always that I was not “laid back” enough.     Before I got married, I was a meet-up leader.   I eventually stepped down, because while about half my meetings were well attended,   they were all still only about half of the total yes RSVPs.   Finally, when I was waiting at the museum to meet up for an art walk, and NOBODY showed up, despite 6 firm “yes” responses, confirmed that morning, I stepped down as the Meet Up leader.   I understand a death in the family, car accident or becoming violently ill as reasons to cancel last minute.   Most excuses I have heard given were not in that vein.

    1. 10.1
      Emily, the original

      Sparkling Emerald,

      Flakiness is one of my major pet peeves.

      Me, too. I also have little tolerance for people who are always late. I don’t mean 5 or 10 minutes. I mean 30 mins or an hour or more. I had a friend who almost every time we’d have plans would send the “I’ll be about 10 minutes” text at the time we were to meet up. Then I’d get the “I’ll be 30 minutes.” An hour later she would show up. But she could get to work on time. She could get to a movie on time. It was just sheer rudeness and self-absorption. I finally lost it at one point and shouted,”Does it not bother you that I am always waiting for you?” I don’t think it did. In her eyes, I was uptight.

      I have a cousin who’s also always late. With her, I’ve come to believe it’s a means of controlling people … because everyone is waiting for her grand arrival. She had a houseful of people over for a holiday one year and she was 90 minutes late to her own party!

  11. 11

    The way I live my life is this; “Say what you mean, mean what you say. Actions, words, feelings 100% in line at all times”. If I don’t want to do something, attend an event, I say no. If I commit myself, I show up. Our words and actions are the major things we leave behind.

  12. 12

    Well, I live on the East Coast and this type of behavior is foreign to me.   In fact, I would go so far as to say this is a dealbreaker (for friendships and relationships). Of course I can understand things coming up once in a while, but if this is a habit for you, then we’re probably not gonna be friends. I don’t have time for this type of foolishness.

  13. 13

    He, he. I have the opposite problem. (I’m a native Californian). I have so many nice people who invite me to things, and it incites a mini-panic attack on my end. Having to decide 5 days before an event, how I’m going to feel that day, is awful! If I say I’m going to come, then I have to come to be in integrity, and in the past I would strong arm myself to get there and keep my word, but it made me miserable to a degree that I could not enjoy the event. My compromise is to tell people how much I appreciate the invitation, but that I already have plans. Then if I feel tip-top that day, I’ll text them that my plans fell through and I can attend (not for events where there’s a specific head count, obv). I did give in and stop accepting invitations period for  anything child related).

    It’s funny, because I always kind of assume that my absence is not noted, but I’ve had a few people who feel unwanted when I don’t come. I have one friend that, God bless him, he’s not happy unless everyone stays for the WHOLE party. I struggled for weeks trying to find a way to keep him happy without killing myself (3 hours at a party is about my limit). I solved this by taking a nap the day of the end so I’m fresh when I arrive, then limiting my visit to three hours. I do wonder if it’s a cultural thing to some degree, but a lot of my white friends do the same thing, so who knows.

  14. 14

    I am a flake like this. I don’t do this to intentionally hurt anyone. Just in my recent past, this behavior totally ruined a very promising relationship. I said yes three times to three different invites from a man I was crazy about, only to bail out mostly last minute. As I examined myself in the aftermath of the inevitable break up, this was all due to my insecurities. I’m not making excuses and I’ve already flagellated myself, as Evan would say, so no need for anyone to repeat it for me. I failed to face up to my insecurities, and decided to hide instead of allowing myself to be vulnerable. I decided that I didn’t want to sacrifice my own comfort or keep my yes instead of being considerate of that man’s feelings. I decided to be absent instead of being vulnerable or uncomfortable. And finally, I felt like I should “punish” that man with my absence for his behavior not complying with my expectations, instead of opening up and having a dialogue. And this was all unconscious behavior, not on purpose. I’ve already apologized, but the damage is done. So look deep inside the “flake” and know that it may not be just rudeness or whatever, just deep down entrenched insecurities that that person does not realize she has, or has been unable to process.

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