Relationship Tips

How To Cancel Plans at the Last Minute in the Least Cringey Way Possible

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After nearly two years of pandemic-era guidelines either removing or starkly limiting our ability to safely gather, this holiday season, all sorts of social events are back on the table. But with plans starting to pile on, you wouldn't be alone should you realize you need (or really want) to cancel at least some of them. Because life certainly happens, learning how to cancel plans at the last minute without seriously offending someone is a skill that’s perhaps more apt now than ever.

In order to think about how to cancel plans, though, it’s essential to get super clear on the why, says friendship expert Danielle Jackson: “If you just don't feel like going anymore or you're tired after work, that's a fundamentally different scenario than if you have kids who suddenly fall ill or a last-minute project that you've been assigned at work, which demands your immediate attention.” But regardless, it's important to be comfortable sitting with whatever reason you're going to choose, even if it’s simply that you need a mental-health reset.

That said, the me-time reason can quickly become a slippery slope to canceling simply because you've lost interest in doing the thing. But as tempting as that may sometimes be, the experts recommend against this habit, if you can help it, especially at the last minute. Because you did make a commitment, at the end of the day, it’s your responsibility to uphold it, rather than simply pivoting to what seems like a better deal on the day of, says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, founder of the Protocol School of Texas.

The more involved or committed you were to the thing, the tougher it’ll be to justify a last-minute cancelation for anything less than an emergency.

That advice applies all the more should your cancelation have an outsize impact on the event, says Jackson, who suggests asking yourself a few questions to gauge the consequences: Will your absence jeopardize the event in a big way? Was the host counting on you to bring something or do something at the event? Were you the one who was going to drive? Essentially, the more involved or committed you were to the thing, the tougher it’ll be to justify a last-minute cancelation for any reason less than an emergency.

Even so, unexpected things do come up, and, occasionally, you might find yourself totally boxed into a last-minute cancelation—whether for a small hangout or a major event. No matter the situation, though, the way in which you cancel can play a big role in how the news is received. Below, experts share friendship-saving tips for canceling on anything last-minute.

7 expert tips for how to cancel plans at the last minute in a way that doesn’t feel totally slimy

1. Accept that the validity of any excuse is always subjective

Everyone has their own barometer for what’s valid and what’s not in terms of reasons for bailing—and just like with anything else in life, you can’t please everyone. Overall, folks are most likely to perceive any pressing obligation that demands your physical presence (like a funeral or sick family member or pet) or is entirely unexpected (say, personal sickness, a sudden work obligation, or a flood, fire, or loss of electricity) as a worthy excuse, says etiquette expert Lisa Mirza Grotts.

2. Make a phone call

Texting is casual, by nature. And you canceling last-minute just might not be a casual thing to the person who’s being canceled on. “I know a call can be scary because sometimes you don’t know exactly what you’ll say, or you’re worried about whether the person on the other end might convince you to change your mind,” says Jackson. But you can get ahead of that scenario by planning out what you’ll say in advance, in order to remain firm in your position. “A phone call gives the person a chance to hear your tone and to hear the sincerity and regretfulness, which can make a cancelation easier to accept,” says Jackson.

3. Apologize upfront

The words, “I’m sorry,” should be said first and foremost, says Jackson. Apologizing demonstrates that you respect the other person's time and energy, and you understand how your cancelation could affect them.

To ensure it comes across as sincere, it also helps to acknowledge your original commitment and how you weighed choosing to cancel. “Maybe you say something like, ‘I know I committed to coming, but I managed my time really poorly. And now I have a work project that I know I won't be able to finish if I come tonight’,” says Jackson. You could follow that up with a comment like, "I really hope this doesn’t inconvenience you," or offer another apology if you’re already aware of certain ways that your cancelation will have ripple-effect consequences for the event.

4. If you have no real excuse, omit a reason rather than lying

Any time you tell a lie for an excuse (even a harmless-seeming one), you run the risk of getting caught, which can damage the friendship more than simply telling the truth, says Gottsman. But if you absolutely must stretch the truth, she suggests giving a blanket 'no' over a fabricated story. Maybe you say something like, ‘I’m so sorry this is last-minute, but I’m unfortunately not going to be able to make it,’ suggests Jackson. While that certainly creates room for interpretation, she says it’s still a better alternative than lying outright.

5. Offer to reschedule

After explaining the situation at hand, finding an alternate time for rescheduling is the surest way to keep a cancelation from breaking a friendship, says Grotts. Doing so sends the message that you still value the relationship, and you’re willing to invest time and energy into maintaining it.

6. Avoid posting publicly on social media after you cancel

Specifically, Jackson warns against showing any sign of celebration after bailing in a place where the person or people having the event or get-together could see it.

“Some people may not take it lightly that you’ve backed out, but they also want to avoid confrontation,” says Jackson. So, while they might feed you a casual, “No worries,” it’s worth assuming that they’re at least a bit disappointed. And being a little too comfortable with your choice to cancel could be seen as taking advantage of their willingness to forgive you, breeding frustration or resentment over time.

7. Make a point to not cancel the next time

When last-minute cancelations become habitual, they reflect poorly on you and risk damaging the relationship, says Gottsman. That’s because the behavior starts to call into question your reliability, as well as the level of commitment you’re willing to devote to your half of the partnership.

After you've canceled last-minute once, you’re in a bit of friendship debt, so to speak. And at that point, it becomes all the more important to avoid dipping even further into debt by doubling down on future commitments. “Sometimes, even bringing up your cancelation again the next time you see someone can help reassure them that, one, it’s on your mind and you haven’t forgotten; two, you’re not trying to shy away from accountability; and three, it actually matters to you that you show up for this person in the future,” says Jackson.

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