When Friends Are Always Late Or Unreliable
A really common social issue people have is when one or more of their friends are flaky. Some ways they may be unreliable are:
- They're frequently late.
- They often cancel plans at the last second, or if they didn't make a firm commitment, announce at the last second they can't make it.
- They're hard to make plans with in the first place. They're always busy and have to get back to you.
- They're undependable about returning your calls or texts. They may not get back to you for three weeks, then text you out of the blue one Friday asking if you want to do something. They may have a knack for not being in contact for a month, then dropping you a line just before you're about to give up on them entirely.
Sometimes people are totally secure with a friendship apart from the friend's flakiness. At other times they wonder if their friend's unreliable behavior is a sign they don't really care about them all that much. Below are my thoughts on how to understand and deal with it.
(This article is about flakiness in more-established friends. This one covers why people you've recently met may talk about getting together, then not follow through.)
Reasons why friends can be undependable
When trying to explain why some people are chronically late or tend to flake on commitments at the last minute you'll often hear opinions such as, "They're so selfish and inconsiderate. They think their time is more valuable than yours", "They're just doing it to have control over the situation. They get a mini-power trip from everyone having to put everything on hold for them" and so on. I'm not saying there's no truth at all in those statements, and I don't want to make excuses for anyone, but I think there's usually more to flakiness than simple mean-spiritedness or self-absorption. Below are some explanations. Several of them may be operating within one person at the same time.
Cultural and subcultural attitudes
Groups differ in their views toward the importance of punctuality and sticking to plans they've made. You can see this across all levels. Entire countries are known for having their own approach to the issue. In some places people think you're rude and inconsiderate if you show up for a 6 o'clock dinner at 6:10pm. In other regions "Dinner at six" means "Arrive any time between 7 and 11pm, if you can make it."
On a smaller scale, each group of friends has its own unwritten rules. In some groups everyone tries to be on time, and if they agree to a plan, they'll do their best to show up. Other circles are more loose and flexible. Plans and start times are seen as tentative, non-binding, and ever-changing. If on Tuesday someone agrees to come to Saturday's get together, but then announces later they're actually going out of town that weekend, no one holds it against them. They'd expect the same leeway in return.
This all works fine when everyone is on the same page, but causes friction when two people or groups come in with different sets of assumptions. If a punctual person who always keeps their plans invites a bunch of more "flaking is okay" types out to dinner, and then half of them cancel on him at the last second, he'll be hurt, while the others won't have thought they did anything out of the ordinary.
Poor time management and organization skills
This is a big reason behind a lot of the people's chronic lateness, inability to keep in touch, or return calls and texts. In general they might have a disorganized, scatterbrained, distractible personality. They may have a conditon like adult ADHD. When they're getting ready to go out they're not good at estimating how much time they'll need, and they tend to get sidetracked easily. When a friend tries to get in touch with them, they'll forget to reply. They're usually better about being on top of things at work, where there would be serious consequences for being tardy or disorganized. In social situations, where their friends will usually just be annoyed at them, their true tendencies come out.
An unpredictable, chaotic life
This is another reason someone may sincerely agree to a plan, but then back out at the last second. Their lives are extremely busy and things are always coming up to derail their commitments. A lot of stressors and crises can also play into someone's mood being all over the place. They may agree to a plan when they're in one headspace, then back out when they're in another.
Someone who struggles with anxiety may agree to do something, then cancel later on because their nerves or worries got the best of them. They don't want to be flaky, but in that moment their need to make their uncomfortable nervousness go away takes precedent over everything else. At the time they made plans they may have been feeling fine and wanted to go, but a few days later their nerves flared up. People with anxiety can have hard to predict good and bad days.
Anxiety can make people late as well. They may have needed an extra ten minutes to gather up their courage before heading out the door. They may have started overthinking what they were going to wear and ended up leaving half an hour later than they intended. It can also make someone inconsistent about keeping in touch. During their more anxious periods they may feel too scared, insecure, or preoccupied to stay in contact with their friends.
Some people get themselves too worked up about social events, and treating them casually, even a bit disrespectfully, takes some of the pressure off. On an unconscious level, if they take their time getting to a party it feels less high-stakes. How important can it be if they don't even care about being there on time?
Similar to anxiety, someone who's depressed may make a plan, but on the day it's happening feel too sad, grouchy, apathetic, pessimistic, fatigued, or self-critical to go. When arranging the plan they may have been feeling a bit better, and genuinely wanted to follow through with it. Or they may have felt unenthusiastic about doing anything the whole time, but were trying to force themselves through the motions of being a social, functional person. They were able to agree to something, but weren't capable of actually showing up.
Depression slows people down and can make simple, everyday tasks feel way harder. They may be late because it took them a while to summon the energy to get dressed and brush their teeth, or talk themselves into going. During tough stretches they may drop off the map and not talk to anyone.
A health condition
A variety of health problems can leave someone unpredictably in pain, fatigued, or generally not able to do much. For example, someone may have to cancel on their friends if they get a migraine out of nowhere. When someone can really seem flaky is when they're embarrassed about their health condition, and make unbelievable excuses rather than tell people what's really going on.
Not being good at saying "no" or "maybe"
There are times when you'll invite someone out who won't want to go. For whatever reason they feel uncomfortable turning you down, so they'll say 'yes' at the moment, but the instant the word escapes their lips they start thinking, "Okay, how am I going to get out of this? What's a good excuse I could use?" Similarly, some people will falsely commit to a plan when what they really wanted to say was, "Possibly. I'll see how I feel at the time."
A fickle personality
Some people are just fickle. Their interests and intentions simply change frequently. On a Monday they may want nothing more than to see that new movie with a friend. On Thursday they couldn't care less about it, and want some "me time" at home. There's nothing mean-spirited behind it, even though their flightiness can be aggrevating to everyone else.
The people they flake on aren't as important to them
This is a somewhat harsh truth. If someone's made plans with a friend or group who aren't particularly important to them, they won't lose much sleep over flaking if they get a better offer or decide they no longer feel like going. This isn't to say the flaker completely hates their less important friends, it's more that they view them as people they'll hang around on their own terms and when it's convenient for them. If it suddenly becomes inconvenient, they'll pull out.
How to deal with unreliable friends
Within reason, you have to have a thick skin for at least some mildly flaky behavior
One thing I often see people ask about their friends' lateness or flakiness is, "Am I right to be so upset about it?" I think the answer is both yes and no. I think that within reason people being unreliable is just part of socializing. It's not ideal, but it is what it is. You'll drive yourself nuts if you're always getting annoyed about it. And if you try to cut out everyone who's even the slightest bit unreliable you'll probably become very short on friends.
To an extent you just have to be laid back and go with the flow. So someone was twenty minutes late picking you up to head to a party? Well there was no rush to be there, and you got to watch TV while you waited. It's not a gigantic deal. Also, for people who feel they're working to improve their social skills, part of doing that may involve loosening up a bit.
A lot of people just expect a certain degree of non-punctual or non-committal behavior from their friends, and they account for it. When they have a get together they expect some people will arrive later, or say they can make it but bail at the last second. When that does happen they don't get too upset, because they weren't expecting anything different.
It works both ways. Realizing, and accepting, that other people can be more relaxed about these things can also give you some freedom to not stress about your own punctuality as much. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's ever okay to leave someone waiting for you outside a movie theater, or back out of a commitment at the last second where your friend had to spend money to arrange it. But if an acquaintance is throwing a party, it's okay not to freak out about showing up a bit after everyone gets there. Or if you've made tentative plans with someone, and you're not feeling it that day, and you know they're easygoing about that kind of thing, then you can feel fine about cancelling.
On the other hand, sometimes a friend's unreliable nonsense goes too. It's one thing for a buddy to occasionally drop out of an event that was never 100% nailed down, or take their time getting somewhere, but if they do it consistently, or they repeatedly inconvenience you, then it's totally justifiable to get angry about it.
The question is where do you draw the line? When is flakiness within a normal, tolerable range, and when does it become annoying and disrespectful? There's no clear answer to that. It's something everyone has to judge for themselves.
Work around unreliable people
In general I think it helps to try to be laid back about unreliability. But not getting overly mad about it doesn't mean you just happily accept it all either. If someone shows they have unreliable tendencies, then it's only understandable to adjust your expectations accordingly and work around them. You may still like a flaky friend, but you're going to be realistic about them. I think it's reasonable to work around someone like this if they're only mildly flaky. People will also tend to do this if a friend is very unreliable, but they've decided the friendship is worth holding on to in spite of it.
Don't make plans that hinge on that one person being there
Hang out with more than one friend. Tell the flaky person to meet you at the event instead of waiting around for them so you can all depart together. If they don't show up, it's not too big of a loss on the whole. If they do appear, it's a bonus. Don't put key parts of a plan in their hands, like having reservations in their name, or needing them to talk to a guy they know to get you into a popular bar. Set things up so their presence is nice, but non-essential.
A more subtle way everyone may "rely" on a certain friend being there is if they're just very fun, entertaining people. It can create a dynamic where everyone's sitting around saying, "Oh man, where's Steve? When's Steve getting here? The party will start when Steve arrives." It can make a group more lenient of someone's undependability than they should be. On one level the tradeoff may be worth it. However, ask if it's really so important that one group member be there for everyone to have a good time.
If you do make plans with a flaky friend, go in accepting things may not pan out
If you have a buddy you know can be unreliable, you may still happily make plans with them, but know things may not work out. When the day of the plan comes around you realize you may end up doing it, or you may not. Either way is good. Again, it's that, "It's nice if it happens, but if not, ah well" mentality.
Avoid putting yourself in situations where you have to wait for an unreliable person by yourself
In other words don't agree to meet them at a restaurant or hiking trail for a one on one get together. Don't agree to have them pick you up after work. If they're really late they'll leave you be bored or stranded. Instead have them pick you up from your place, or meet them at theirs, and go together. If you do meet them somewhere make sure other friends will be there too, or that it's for the kind of event where it's not a big loss if they're running behind (e.g., if they're late to a movie you can go into the theater by yourself).
If someone is picking you up, don't stop doing what you're doing until they're actually there
You get a text from your friend saying he'll at your building in two minutes. You turn everything off, put your coat on, and head down to the first floor. Then you proceed to wait in the lobby for twenty five minutes. It only takes one time to learn that lesson. It's better to just tell people to text you when they're outside and keep playing on the computer, watching movies, or whatever it is you were doing before. If you're going to be waiting you may as well be having fun, not putting everything on hold.
Most people agree the "Lie and tell them the event starts earlier than it does, so they'll be on time" thing doesn't work
For one, the flaky friend will catch on fairly quickly and the tactic will stop working. They may feel annoyed at being manipulated. I also feel like this breeds resentment in the people who have to resort to this trick. They come to see their friend as such a self-absorbed, hopeless case that they have to resort to lying to get them to show up on time.
Adjust your expectations of people based on how close you are to them
It's one thing for a vague acquaintance to be an hour late to a group get together, or to bow out of something at the last second. If a good friend flaked on you though, especially if they hadn't done it in the past, you're justifiably going be a lot more irritated. I think as you get to know someone more and more your standards for what you'll tolerate in them can increase.
Sometimes you have to call people out or stop spending time with them
If someone crosses your line about how much flakiness you'll put up with, you have a few options. You can try talking to them about it, you could cut them out of your life, or you can downgrade them (like to someone you'll happily catch up with if someone else invites them to a group event, but who you'll stop actively trying to make plans with).
If you call someone out for being unreliable
If you go with this option I think you need to make your message fit how well you know them. I wouldn't recommend reaming out a casual acquaintance for being late to give you a free ride to a party, but it would make sense to be pretty forward with a good friend who consistently lets you down.
It's your call whether you want to start with smaller, more low key comments about their flakiness and work up to firmer ones if they don't change, or just dive in and be more direct. There's not really any magic thing you can say to them. Just let them know their unreliable behavior bothers you. Even though they've annoyed you, try your best not to see them as a selfish monster, and have sympathy for conditions like anxiety that may be affecting them.
Don't expect a whole lot the first time your confront someone. In my experience, and from reading up on the issue, a lot of unreliable people aren't great about taking responsibility for their actions, and they may dismissively brush off your concerns. The specific reaction you'll get depends on the reason they're flaky in the first place:
- If the explanation is differing cultural attitudes they may be genuinely confused and not know what the problem is. In their mind they weren't doing anything wrong. They may also come back at you and paint you as being too uptight and anal retentive - Just because they said they'd come to your party didn't mean they actually would. How could you not know that and freak out at them over it?
- Flakes of the disorganized or fickle variety tend to give empty apologies like, "Yeah, yeah, I'm a terrible friend, sorry..." They also like say that's just the way they are, and they can't do anything about it.
- Overly busy, stressed out friends will often sincerely apologize, but their lives are too hectic for anything to really change. Anxious or depressed friends are similar. They don't want to be undependable, but can't help it at the moment.
- People who are flaky because they're bad at saying "no" will often be just as reluctant to share their true feelings if you bring up their unreliability directly. They may apologize for their behavior, but until they learn to assert themselves better they'll continue to agree to things they never intend on following through with.
- If you're not that important to someone who is unreliable toward you, they're not going to care too much if you call them out. Maybe they'll reluctantly get their act together, or they may start hanging out with you less, because they now see the relationship as being less low-maintenance and on their terms.
Over the longer term when someone has a flaky friend the situation tends to play out one of two ways. The first is that the relationship isn't that essential for them and they cut the person off. The second is when their friend has too many other good qualities, and they can't end it just because they're unreliable. The friend's flakiness will continue to cause tension, and they'll alternate between trying to accept it, and getting fed up and having another confrontation. After getting called out enough the flaky friend may become more reliable, though not to a flawless degree.
Sometimes even if the flake changes just a little it can help. Like an unreliable friend will hear what you have to say, and start showing up to things fifteen minutes late, instead of half an hour. It's not perfect, but that improvement may edge their behavior from "totally maddening" to "bearable". Another change they could make would be to at least be honest with you about how much they're running behind. It's totally exasperating when someone tells you they'll be there in ten minutes when they haven't even started getting ready yet, and really won't show up for another hour. When they tell you the truth (which means you'll now both be an hour late to a party), it's still annoying, but at least you know you have an hour to kill and can do something productive with your time, rather than dropping everything and expecting them to show up at any second.