Sitting at your desk at 11am on a Tuesday, your mind wanders to the plans you’ve made for that evening. You’ve arranged to have a drink with someone who’s closer than an acquaintance, but not quite a Real Friend. The problem is, you don’t really want to go. You didn’t sleep well last night. You need to do the laundry you never got round to at the weekend. And Doctor Foster is on. So, you pick up your phone and send a quick WhatsApp: ‘So sorry, but I can’t make it tonight because I have to work late/feel the first signs of flu coming on/my best mate’s been eaten by a tiger...’
On average, how many times would you say you do this per month? (OK, maybe not the tiger bit). And how many times is it done to you? Whatever the answer, I’d wager it’s far more than it ever used to be. Partly that’s because, as we get older, we’ve genuinely all got more going on: there are stressful jobs, commutes and, increasingly, children to work around. But let’s be honest, the main reason is that we’re living in an era historians of the future may come to refer to as ‘Peak Flake’.
WATCH: Your 30s: Why They're The Best Years Of Your Life
Like so many other less-than-ideal characteristics of modern life, the catalyst for the flake epidemic was the double- edged sword that is technology. On the one hand, hasn’t it just made life so simple and convenient? On the other, it’s made it too simple and convenient to sack off arrangements at the tap of a few buttons, without requiring the tiniest shred of the guilt we’d have felt back in the days when the only way to cancel a plan was to pick up the phone and hear the abandoned person’s disappointed voice.
Because of the ease with which we can back out of plans, we seem to make more than ever, over-committing ourselves to brunches, Pilates classes, dates and catch-up drinks we know deep down we’ll never attend. Arrangements have become imsy things, with unspoken waivers built in: I’ll meet you on Wednesday night, as long as I can be bothered, or don’t get a better offer.
It’s as if we’re so addicted to feeling busy, we forget to actually follow up. Our phones constantly light up with news updates, social media notifications, emails, texts and direct messages, giving the impression we’re connected to the world around us 24/7. Increasingly, that’s becoming an illusion. When it comes to actually giving another person our one-to-one attention, all too often we can’t quite manage to squeeze it in.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dating world. I laugh wryly every time someone refers to Tinder as a ‘hook-up app’. Of course, as long as there are single people there’ll always be casual sexual encounters, some of which will end, inevitably, with a woman wondering why a man she slept with never called. But that clichéd scenario isn’t what my single friends and I complain about.
Instead, we wonder why it is that so many guys seem content to engage in messaging sessions that span weeks – months even – but go cold the moment the idea of an IRL meet-up is raised. Has tech made us so lazy we can’t even be bothered to ditch Netflix for an evening on the off-chance we might meet the love of our lives, or at least get lucky? Judging by my friend Louisa’s recent experience, the answer seems to be a depressing yes. ‘This guy seemed really interested – he messaged me repeatedly over the course of a few weeks,’ she says. ‘I know from experience that it’s pointless getting to know someone unless you’ve met them in person, as you need to know what the chemistry’s really like, so I kept suggesting we meet up. At first he ignored the question, and then eventually said, “Yeah, let’s do it next week” – but then he cancelled, twice, despite insisting he was keen. In the end, I realised what he was looking for wasn’t a girlfriend; it was an ego boost he could enjoy without having to make any effort.’
It’s little wonder that daters who want to show they’re serious often include the line ‘not looking for a penpal’ in their bios. It’s weird, though, that you’d have to specify – on a dating app, the sole purpose of which is to facilitate dating – that you’re willing to actually meet up with people face to face. It makes me wonder how far we are from a dystopian future in which nobody interacts with anybody else, except remotely.
In the meantime, the main problem with all this flakiness is that it devalues our commitments to other human beings. If we bail out of a catch-up with a friend as casually as cancelling an Uber, we’re sending the message that they’re not important. It used to be understood that part of being a good person was being reliable; being someone who showed up, on time, when they’d agreed to do so. Those parameters have shifted, subtly
at first, but now increasingly obviously.
The ubiquity of tech in our lives is a genie we’ll never put back in the bottle and, let’s face it, most of us wouldn’t wish to – we’d barely know how to function after being dependent for so long. But I think we could use a few rules to ensure we don’t lose sight of our basic decency. We’re all going to be flaky sometimes, but maybe we should ask ourselves if it’s for a good reason. If we’re honest with ourselves, being a bit tired isn’t really enough to justify letting someone down.
If we must flake, doing it politely is something we should strive for: offering another date, rather than sending a self-absorbed message about how busy and important we are – or, even worse, ghosting. It’s vital we don’t forget to be considerate of the person on the receiving end, who might need us to honour our commitment. If they’re going through
a hard time, just sitting there with them can make a real difference.
I’m just as guilty of flaking on friends, acquaintances and potential dates as everyone else. But I try to remember what my mum used to say when I was reluctant to go to parties as a moody teenager: they’ll be pleased to see you, and you’ll enjoy it once you’re there. More often than not, sharing a bottle of wine with someone you like is a much better tonic for a bad day than a night in at home. And the upside of tech is that you can always catch up with Doctor Foster later.