What do you do when you have plans with a friend and you have to cancel? Maybe you don't exactly have to cancel, but you can't face another evening out. Or you really want to catch up on work. Or you have a rare chance to spend some time with that man or woman you'd really like to get to know better.
But -- you have these plans. How can you get out of them gracefully, without offending your friend or friends, and with the minimum possible damage to your relationships?
1. Consider the consequences.
Begin by acknowledging that canceling plans with someone will have some effect on your relationship. How much of an effect depends on several factors -- how important this get-together was for your friend, how often you see each other, whether you cancel plans frequently or very rarely.
It also matters quite a bit what the plans were for. As Olga Khazan notes in a recent Atlantic piece, bailing on a sit-down dinner party is worse than canceling out on an open house. If just the two of you were going to get together to go to a movie or visit a museum or go for a hike, that could be awkward for your friend if he or she isn't comfortable doing those things alone. And -- once you've accepted an invitation to a wedding, you really shouldn't cancel except in the most dire of emergencies.
2. Cancel early.
Your instinct will be to put off telling your friend that you're canceling, and maybe even making the final decision to cancel, until the very last possible moment. That's a natural instinct -- you're human and you're reluctant to give someone disappointing news. But that's also the exact opposite of what you should do. Let the other person know as soon as you realize that you can't, or won't, make it. In fact, if you just realize you might have to cancel, it's probably a good idea to let the other person know. Try your absolute best to provide at least 24 hours' notice. And it should go without saying that you must actually cancel -- just failing to show up without letting the other person know is not an option.
3. Pick up the phone.
Admittedly, a phone call isn't always appropriate for everyone, and some people are a lot easier to get on the phone than others. Still, if you have something disappointing to say to a friend, I'm a believer in actually saying it, even if it's to someone's voicemail -- rather than texting or emailing. You should always apologize when canceling, and I always think it's better to apologize by phone than by text or email.
4. Provide a good reason.
The fact that you're canceling is likely to inconvenience the other person, and you are sending the message that something else is more important to you than this relationship. To just say that you can't make it, or that something has come up without providing additional details is also saying that you don't really care.
So explain yourself. Ideally, you should tell the truth, especially if this is a close friend or someone who knows you well. If you've had an exhausting week and just need to go home and collapse, your friend might very well understand that. If you got a last-minute request from an important customer or had to straighten out a SNAFU at work, he or she should understand that too. I'm not generally a fan of falsehood, but I believe that if you really can't or don't want to tell the other person why you're canceling, then it's better to invent a convincing lie than to provide no explanation at all.
One of the best ways to let the other person know that you care about your relationship is to suggest a replacement for whatever you were planning to do. If possible, you should make this alternate plan at the same time as you cancel. That sends the explicit message that you like the other person and want to spend time together, even though you won't or can't do it when originally planned. If you can't reschedule right then, say something like, "I'll text you tomorrow with some possible times." Then make sure to do what you said you would. Don't leave it to the other person to contact you.
And do make an extra effort. If the other person invited you for dinner, reschedule for a dinner that you will cook. If you were supposed to go out together, make it your treat next time. Make sure to pick a time when you absolutely know you can make it, and then stick to that plan no matter what. If you cancel the same date twice, you will harm your relationship for sure.
6. Ask yourself why you made the plan in the first place.
It could be that your circumstances have changed completely since you first agreed to get together. But if that's not the case, then why did you say yes to this social engagement? Was it because you didn't want to cause disappointment by sayting no? Were you hoping that when the moment came, you would really want to do whatever it is?
Saying yes to a social engagement can be a bit like using a credit card. You create a problem for your future self to deal with because it makes life easier for your present-day self. The problem with this is that if you care about your relationships -- and your own well-being -- then it's a bad idea to make appointments that you'll either have to cancel or suffer through miserably.
If you find yourself canceling more than you'd like, try this simple practice: Whenever you get an invitation, either say no right off the bat, or else say, "I'd like to, but I'm not sure. Let me get back to you tomorrow."
That will stop you from answering with the knee-jerk "yes" that's always so tempting because you know it's what they want to hear. You'll have 24 hours to look at your calendar, consider how busy and how tired you may be on the day in question, and ask yourself whether this really is something you want to do or not. If it's not, or if it's something you can't firmly commit to, then say so. It may feel a bit awkward, but it's honest. And it will save you from the greater awkwardness of canceling later on.