Skip to main content

“I’m so sorry I can’t make it tonight—work’s been crazy today!”

“Okay, so I’m the worst, but I won’t be able to meet up after all.”

“Hey, I hate to do this, but can we reschedule?”

Many of us have received or sent text messages like this. It starts when we send a message to a friend, make a plan, maybe even mark our calendar—but then one of us backs out. Maybe we’ve remembered a prior commitment, gotten hit with a big project at work, or just feel too overwhelmed to socialize.

While the age of texting has made arranging plans with friends easier than ever before, it also means that canceling them is just as simple. Simply compose an apologetic text, hit “send,” and you’re off the hook.

Gone are the days when an invitation to socialize was sent, accepted, and secured as a promise days in advance. (One need only consider the scene in Sense and Sensibility when Colonel Brandon must suddenly excuse himself from a picnic to recall that in times past, canceling a previously made plan indicated either severe rudeness or utter catastrophe.)

Today, given how easy it is to back out plans for any reason, how do we decide which reason is a good one? And once we’ve decided to postpone, how do we do it politely? Here are some things to consider when considering backing out.

Keep commitments in the order you make them

There are circumstances under which canceling plans with friends is necessary and appropriate. Some of those circumstances are easy to identify: We wake up sick, a family member asks for an urgent favor, or an emergency strikes.

What do these situations have in common? They are sudden, serious, and cannot wait. Weighed against leisure time with a friend, they hold greater importance, and any true friend would understand (and probably encourage) that we must attend to our responsibilities.

Of course, not all situations are so clear-cut. For instance, let’s say that after making plans to spend a lunch break with a coworker, an old friend asks to catch up at the same time. Is it ok to put off the scheduled lunch?

A good rule of thumb is to keep commitments in the order we make them, making exceptions only for those urgent and serious situations. Viewing the original plan with the coworker as a commitment helps clarify the relative importance of the new request. In this case, although you might prefer to catch up with the old friend, it is not urgent, and you can always suggest another time. By striving to stick to commitments in order, we maintain trust and guard ourselves against the trap of canceling on a whim.

Plan ahead

It’s true that work or household projects can creep up on us and eat away a Friday evening that we had hoped to spend with a friend. Work is an important responsibility that we cannot neglect, and sometimes we find ourselves overwhelmed with it.

At the same time, once we’ve made a commitment, we owe it to our friend to do everything we can to follow through. That means keeping a schedule, avoiding distractions, and leaving on time to avoid making the friend wait.

Just as it always pays off to plan and prepare for an interview, meeting, or deadline, being intentional about our time before getting together with a friend sets us up for success. We’re less likely to fall into a last-minute cancellation, and we’re more likely to deepen the friendship, since we’ve made clear that a busy schedule is not stopping us from enjoying their company.

Be honest with yourself

Ever agreed to hang out before checking your calendar or to-do list? Because of the ease of modern communication, we run the risk of quickly agreeing to a plan without first examining whether we can actually commit.

Before responding to an invitation with an immediate and enthusiastic “yes,” review your schedule and other commitments. (Even if you think you’re in the clear, it’s worth a double check; there may be a commitment sitting on the calendar that you arranged long ago!) If you still want to give an immediate reply, offer that context: “I’d love to get lunch! Let me check my schedule tomorrow and see if tomorrow works. If not, I’ll let you know other times I could meet up.”

In addition to this double-check, examine how feasible the proposed plan will be for you in real-time. Can I finish work on time and make it? Will I need to reschedule another task to make it work? Do I anticipate having the energy to socialize at that time, or do I need time at home to recharge first? Remember to consider the order and importance of your commitments—otherwise, it’s easy to confuse a need to rest with an unwillingness to change out of our sweatpants!

Asking yourself these questions and answering them sincerely can help you avoid a hasty commitment that will only end in a last-minute cancellation.

Cancel with a phone call

As we all know, life remains unpredictable, and sometimes all the effort in the world can’t rescue us from that awkward realization that meeting with that friend just isn’t going to work. In that case, we can only do our best to “cushion” the cancellation with straightforward and prompt communication.

When it comes to canceling a planned get-together, composing a text quickly gets messy. Is it apologetic enough? Does it provide enough context? Does it come off as insincere?

We can avoid all that complexity by simply picking up the phone. Yes, this is harder at first, but it also clears the air much more quickly. Having the conversation out loud compels us to offer an explanation, which actually eases the tension. (A mysterious “I can’t make it” text much more easily can be interpreted as “I just don’t feel like it anymore.”)

Over the phone, a friend can hear the sincerity in your voice as you offer that explanation: “Susie, I’m so sorry, but I completely lost track of time and haven’t been good about checking my calendar, and I just realized I actually have an appointment this afternoon. Would you mind if we reschedule? I really would love to see you!”

By hearing the regret and eagerness in your voice, your friend can more fully understand your situation, which will help her be easygoing in her response. And that will help you breathe more easily and will make it all the more valuable when you do get together.

Propose an alternative

Even when necessary, backing out of a plan is a disappointment. Suggesting a different plan, even if it’s a general idea, helps end the conversation on a cheerful note by giving you both something else to look forward to.

Again, honesty is key to make Plan B actually happen. A hasty “Let’s meet tomorrow instead!” without a sincere evaluation is a plan just as likely to be canceled as the first.

What needs to happen in order to make your plan a reality? If you realized that the original location was not feasible, propose one that is: “To be honest, it takes me a long time to get to the west side, so I’m almost for sure going to be late if we meet there. Would you be able to meet later in the day, or at a spot halfway between us?”

This attempt to think of a new and doable plan makes clear that you do want to see your friend and are committed to making it happen.

Alone time can be self-care, but spending intentional time with friends remains an essential ingredient to wellness and quality of life, so it’s in our best interest to take our plans with friends seriously.

By thinking ahead and putting our best effort into making a plan happen, we’ll find that we won’t need to back out so often—and when we do, a sincere apology and attempt to reschedule can decrease strain on the relationship. Practicing these small habits, we are better equipped to be the best friend we can be, enjoying bonds that even the craziest of schedules can’t shake.