This weekend I had lunch with a friend of mine who lamented a strange social phenomenon she fell victim to earlier this month. She was hosting a dinner party, and one guest, instead of merely attending or canceling, began texting her in the morning to warn her that she might not be able to attend, due to a sick child. “I’ll let you know what happens,” the guest promised the hostess, and then, on about an hourly basis, provided updates, informing her that things weren’t looking so good due to Junior and his cold. Eventually, exactly at dinnertime, the guest sent a text saying “Looks like I can’t make it after all. Have fun though!!”*
Naturally, my friend was peeved. “Ah yes, the slow-motion cancel,” I said. “I’ve fallen victim to it myself.” Instead of just being told that someone can’t show up to dinner or a party or a date, I’ve gotten a long, slow buildup to the inevitable letdown that someone is canceling on me. Sometimes they start days in advance, as I’ve had friends start letting me know the second they feel a cold coming on so that I can get ready to confront the possibility that I might not see them. (And just in case you think I’m being a judgment-casting stone-thrower, I found myself doing this last week. A friend of mine was holding an event that I had earlier said I’d attend, and I let her know early in the day that I might not be able to attend due to my husband not feeling well. And then I texted my apologies five minutes into the event. So I am absolutely guilty of this myself.)
Why do we** do this? I have two theories. One came via a British guy friend of mine who told me recently the biggest difference between American and British girls is that at bars (and other such places), a British woman will have no trouble telling a guy who is hitting on her that she’s not interested (“Sod off,” is the term everyone, probably even including the Queen, uses in this situation.) But once the guy came to the States, he’d chat up a lady for an hour and figure he had a good chance of getting somewhere with her until he realized that she was Just Being Nice.
There are many times when Just Being Nice is actually not so nice after all. Like talking behind someone’s back instead of saying what you feel, like letting resentment build up instead of addressing issues head-on, like leading a person on or like wasting someone’s time by sloooowly canceling on them instead of having the cojones to just do it. If you say “I can’t make it tonight, sorry,” right off the bat, it’s rude. But if you do it over the span of many hours or days, it’s Nice.
But the flip side of Just Being Nice is also feeling a like Kind of a Big Deal. When you’re a Kind of a Big Deal, no social function can go on without you (not in any meaningful way, anyway), so you need to let people down gently and slowly. If you just say “I can’t make it tonight, sorry,” right off the bat, you are tearing people’s hearts out. But if you do it over the span of many hours or days, you can slowly, slowly get your friends used to the idea of spending time without you when they were all worked up about seeing you. It’s like gradually entering a hot bath, only in this case instead of bubbles the tub is full of disappointment.
In the interest in saving time and text fees, let’s agree to relax on Just Being Nice and that we’re not always Kind of a Big Deal. We all like seeing our friends and it’s a bummer when plans get altered but let’s just agree to take a note from the British gals. Say “sod off” to being indirect, passive aggressive or not quite honest when it comes to rearranging plans. Our friends will all survive until the next time--when you gossip about the people who didn’t make it.
*It’s essential, when declining an event, to give everyone permission to have fun without you.
**by “we” I mostly mean women but not all women and certainly not exclusively women, but let’s face it, this is a girl thing.