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

Photo: Stocksy / Lucas Ottone
Cancelling plans is almost always going to feel uncomfy... so it's reasonable to want to put it off. But being wishy-washy on whether you'll make it and holding out until the last minute is arguably worse, preventing the other person from making alternate arrangements. At the same time, though, life happens, and you could very well wind up in a situation where you need to back out right beforehand—which is why it's helpful to learn (in advance) how to cancel plans at the last minute without seriously offending someone.

The nature of the event at hand—say, someone's graduation party versus a casual weeknight hang—will definitely affect how well a last-minute cancellation goes over, as will your track record for either attending things or flaking. But no matter your circumstances and the situation, the way in which you cancel will also play a role in how that cancellation is received.

Experts In This Article

Below, experts share friendship-saving tips for canceling on anything last-minute, plus advice for getting in the right headspace before that conversation, and how to prevent yourself from winding up in this situation again in the future.

Things to ask yourself before you cancel plans

1. *Why* do I want or need to cancel the plan?

In order to know how you should go about canceling plans at the last minute, 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.” 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 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.

It's also possible that your impulse to back out of plans last-minute might be stemming from an issue with someone involved, says friendship researcher and coach Madison Romney. If you have a conflict with a person on the other end, it's often better to address than simply avoid.

Just dreading hanging out with them? “Reflect on why these negative feelings are surfacing,” says Romney. “Does this friendship require outsized energy investment? What might be getting in the way of being excited to see this friend?” Being upfront with them about your feelings—and perhaps taking an active step back from the friendship as a result—is a better call than stringing them along with plans that you will eventually cancel.

“Ask yourself: Does this friendship require outsized energy investment? What might be getting in the way of being excited to see this friend?” —Madison Romney, friendship researcher and coach

If you find yourself continuously canceling on friends (regardless of the events at stake or the people in attendance), consider that it might be due to unresolved social anxiety. Cracking open a social anxiety book, speaking one-on-one with a therapist, and exposure therapy to social events may lend a hand in helping you address your fears of engaging with others socially.

2. Is my attendance actually an obligation or a choice?

Ask yourself if your attendance would be deemed necessary or optional by others involved, suggests clinical psychologist and marriage and family therapist Elisabeth Crain, PsyD. Determining that it would really be your choice to attend something (versus any kind of obligation) can bring you peace of mind should you decide or need to back out last-minute.

“A lot of times we feel like we have to do something, versus choosing to do something,” explains Dr. Crain, “and most of the time, it's usually a choice. Thinking we ‘have to’ do something may create more unnecessary anxiety and stress.”

3. What are the potential repercussions of my last-minute cancellation?

Consider whether your cancellation will have a large, lasting impact on the event or friendship, suggests Jackson. Ask yourself: 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 cancellation for any reason less than an emergency. It’s in this case that you might want to reconsider canceling, especially if your reason for cancelling stems from simply not wanting to take the effort to get dressed up and go.

What is the best excuse to cancel plans?

Doling out an exaggerated last-minute excuse may be tempting—after all, an emergency medical problem or car troubles sounds more pressing than, say, wanting to veg out on the couch—but using a lie to get out of a prior engagement can really damage the friendship if the other party catches you, says Gottsman. Instead, honesty really is the best policy for excuses.

If you absolutely must stretch the truth, however, Gottsman 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, both experts say it’s still a better alternative than lying outright.

How do you politely cancel at the last minute?

While each situation is unique, there is an etiquette to canceling plans. The best way to circumvent any unnecessary hurt for the receiving party is to be as prompt as possible with your communication. “If you do have a conflict, reach out to cancel as soon as you become aware of the conflict,” says Romney. Giving the person on the other end a head's up as soon as possible is common courtesy—it gives them the maximum amount of time to adjust their plans based on your absence.

Clarity, too, is crucial when backing out gracefully from concrete plans. “Start your conversation by getting to the point as succinctly as possible, rather than dancing around the topic,” says psychologist and friendship expert Irene S. Levine, PhD. Here are a few key dos and don'ts for canceling plans last-minute and keeping things as polite as possible:


  • Cancel plans on the phone or in person
  • Apologize for the inconvenience
  • Be clear and concise
  • Be honest about why you’re canceling
  • Make an effort to reschedule during the conversation


  • Cancel plans via text
  • Play down the importance of the plans you’re skipping out on
  • Be vague
  • Lie about why you’re canceling
  • Put off rescheduling the plans

7 expert tips for how to cancel plans at the last minute

1. Accept that your excuse or reason might not be well-accepted

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.

While that certainly doesn't mean any other excuse you give is invalid, you'll just want to be aware of the fact that the person or people on the other end may not have the same perspective as you do on what's fair.

2. Call, don’t text

Texting is casual, by nature. And you canceling last-minute is probably not 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.

After all, “a phone call also gives the person a chance to hear your tone and to hear the sincerity and regretfulness, which can make a cancellation easier for them to accept,” says Jackson.

3. Apologize upfront

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

To ensure the apology 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. Offer to reschedule

After explaining the situation at hand, finding a time to reschedule (or schedule something different) 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. And taking the initiative to reschedule immediately shows the other person that you recognize the inconvenience of your cancellation—and you're intent on remedying it ASAP, says Dr. Levine.

Can’t commit to something anytime soon? “Make an effort to call the friend a day or two later to ensure they feel loved and prioritized,” suggests Romney.

5. Avoid posting publicly on social media after you cancel

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.

6. 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.

7. Be understanding when they have to cancel plans last minute, too

Thou who commits the act of canceling plans last-minute shall not cast stones toward others who do the same! Make a note to extend the same amount of empathy and understanding to the person or people you’re canceling on should they have to cancel on you in the future, says Romney.

Sometimes, that’s easier said than done—being ditched last-minute hurts, even if it’s from someone you know you’ve had to cancel on previously. But remember that “most of the time, it's not personal,” says Dr. Crain.

How late is too late to cancel?

Canceling immediately before an event—say, a day or two before the plans are supposed to take place, or even closer—certainly can create an added layer of tension between you and the other party. The closer you get to the agreed-upon date and time, the harder it may become for the other person to accommodate for your cancellation.

Still, sh*t happens, and sometimes you can’t control when the need to back out arises. According to Dr. Crain, an appropriate time to cancel last minute is usually about 48 hours before. This typically leaves enough of a cushion for the receiver to adjust their plans around your absence. However, the amount of head's-up time that’s considered polite “is still situation-dependent,” she adds. “Cancelling on a lunch meeting versus a wedding, for example, would warrant different amounts of time.”

The general rule is that the bigger or more important or unique the event (and the less potential there is for rescheduling), the earlier you'll want to cancel should you come to the conclusion that you can't go.

Should I feel guilty for canceling plans?

Even if the choice is not entirely in your control, having to cancel plans at the last minute can certainly “bring up shame and guilt,” says Dr. Crain, which is why so many people attempt to put off cancelations until the last minute.

Feeling guilty is normal—it shows that you care deeply about the other person and know that your decision to ditch could have hurtful implications, says Dr. Crain. But try to remember that canceling last-minute is normal, too: You may be feeling guilty now over your need to cancel last-minute, but you've probably been on the receiving end of a last-minute cancellation, too.

Learning how to cancel plans without feeling bad starts with the understanding that “that’s life—stuff inevitably comes up, and people are going to cancel at one point or another,” says Dr. Crain. Being upfront and open about why you have to cancel, finding a time to reschedule with the other party, and committing to following through in the future can all lessen the guilt.

If you still can't stop feeling bad about the situation, consider acknowledging all of the ways you’ve shown up for the other person in the past and work to extend the same empathy and forgiveness you'd give to others to yourself.

What to consider before saying yes to plans

Whether you blame it on FOMO, a desire to people-please, or just being a total social butterfly, there are multiple reasons why you might feel the need to RSVP "yes" to all the things, regardless of whether you actually want to go to them. “Especially in our society, we're programmed to overextend, not under-extend,” says Dr. Crain.

This pressure of presence, however, can set our future selves up for failure. By agreeing to plans without taking a beat to reflect on whether you really can or should commit, you’re more likely to run into the uncomfortable scenario of cancelling last minute.

Before you say yes to plans, consider your desire to attend the event: Is this something you’re *actually* looking forward to, or do you feel like you have to go? “Check in with yourself and your mental state,” suggests Dr. Crain. “Are you having a good week or a bad week? Are you going through something? Will you be a good attendee at the party? Having that kind of self awareness creates a good barometer for making plans.”

Weighing these same considerations when deciding whether you should go on a second date with someone before accepting their proposal can also keep you from running into the situation where you're canceling on the date last-minute.

As you start to turn down more of the hangouts and events that you aren't sure you'll be able to attend, you might also consider "creating a regular, low-stress friendship ritual with a close friend or two, like weekly viewings of The Bachelor, monthly dinners at new restaurants in town, or FaceTime dates on the first Sunday of every month," says Romney. This way, a one-off cancelation every now and then doesn't feel like such a big deal, since you have time regularly devoted to the friendship(s) already.

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