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The Bent: On flakiness

Part one: Intuitions

What is flakiness? We all have certain intuitions about flakiness, but they are surely imprecise. What are the facts required for someone to have flaked — is it lateness, canceling or skipping with no notice? How about the normative facts? Is flaking simply “bad,” or do we have more complicated attitudes toward it? Over the last few volumes of this paper, Daily writers have fleshed out their own intuitions on flaking in different ways. To understand flakiness better, let’s start with their thoughts.

Starting us off, Grind writer Kassidy Kelley sees flaking as canceling plans without a legitimate excuse. This simple definition, however, immediately raises the question of what counts as “legitimate.” Kelley is justified, in my opinion, in assuming we have a good intuition of what is legitimate. But she also gives a heuristic for figuring out whether you have been canceling for a legitimate reason: observe the frequency of canceling. If you’re canceling plans once in a while, then your reasons are likely legitimate. But “if you’re someone who finds yourself consistently canceling on your friends,” you’re probably flaking. It’s unlikely that all — or even most — of your reasons were good reasons.

Elizabeth Dunn explores another aspect of flaking in The Grind: ways to “flake without appearing flaky.” The article is satirical, but it illuminates the role of appearances in flakiness compared to other ethical concepts, like “offense” or “lying.” Something isn’t offensive unless certain people could be offended — unless it appears offensive. But you can lie without appearing to lie, and in many cases successful lying means appearing truthful. Flaking is independent of appearances. You can flake brazenly, or you can flake and hide it well, and thus not appear flaky. Dunn follows Kelley’s intuition that flaking means canceling plans without legitimate reason. To not appear flaky, then, you must lie about having a legitimate reason. However, Dunn thinks that instead of hiding one’s flakiness, it’s better to “just tell the truth and own up to your flakiness.” Flaking and lying is worse than simply flaking.

I’m not convinced. Perhaps if you’re going to cancel plans, it’s better for your friends to think that you had a good reason so they don’t resent you for it. Resentment only ruins their day — maybe it’s better for them if they think your mom really needed your help. Better still not to flake, but if you flake, you may as well lie about it.

Challenging the Grind orthodoxy, Kiara Harding thinks flaking is fine. For her, flaking is canceling plans at the last minute, when others cannot change their plans, and gives a nuanced account of degrees of flakiness. In a group situation, she suggests, the bigger the group the less flaky canceling is — unless your presence was key to the group’s cohesion. And for extracurricular events and socials, she maintains that one person usually doesn’t make a difference.

Harding doesn’t mention “legitimate” and “illegitimate” reasons, because she contends that one’s reasons for flaking are almost always legitimate. Homework, another commitment or just not wanting to bike across campus are all good reasons for canceling plans, according to Harding: “It’s better to put all of your energy into the thing you actually want to be doing than to put a fraction of your energy into something else just to avoid being a flake.” Commitments, to Harding, not only aren’t ethical trump cards, but in fact can be overridden by even simple preferences to do something else.

But (as Harding herself points out) part of flakiness is canceling last minute. It’s not a matter just of weighing commitments against other things, but also of due courtesy — if you cancel a dinner days in advance, this doesn’t seem as bad as canceling minutes before, even if you have cancelled all the same. Harding’s argument is perhaps applicable to flaking on a club halfway through the quarter, but seems less applicable to flaking on dinner minutes before.

Sarah Myers in Opinions equates flaking with lateness, breaking from the other definitions we’ve seen. I concur with The Grind’s majority view: lateness is lateness; flakiness is canceling plans entirely (or showing up so late you may as well have cancelled). Nonetheless, lateness could be seen as flaking on one’s commitment to be on time. Thus, some of Myers’ thoughts on lateness translate to flakiness. In particular, she advocates that we be more reflective about our reasons. Even if you want to skip a club meeting for more sleep, will the extra sleep be worth it? Is it worth missing out on a fun morning? Upon reflection, we may find that we really don’t want to flake after all.

Taking a broader view, Opinions desk editor Megha Parwani points out insightfully that rampant flaking reveals a prioritization of individualistic values over collective ones: “although we’re all self-realizing on one sandstone-oasis of a campus, as members of some sort of community, we can fail to regard ourselves as a collective.” Her worry with flaking is less about individual ethics, and more about the larger social loss flaking brings about — the fact that it slowly erodes the sense of community with the others with whom, to varying degrees, we share our lives.

I want to build on Parwani’s focus on the broader social aspects of flaking. Sometimes flaking affects only a few people, but affects them significantly — if you flake on a friend, you’ve affected only them but cause them nontrivial hurt or annoyance. Other times, one person flaking makes little difference, but many people flaking does. In a large class, it matters little if one student misses class. But if enough people miss class, the professor ends up lecturing to a mostly-empty hall.

Perhaps, then, instead of reasoning “it makes no difference whether I do it,” we should reason “if a lot of people did this, it would make a difference.” For a large class, this yields something like “if most people skipped class, the class dynamic would suffer.” If you’re flaking on a friend, your reasoning is unchanged: only one person can flake on your friend (you). Such reasoning also accommodates intuitions about legitimate reasons: you can say, for instance, “if everyone skipped meetings when sick, it would be fine, since people are typically sick only occasionally.”

Why do I say we “should” reason a certain way? Like my colleagues, I am interested in investigating flakiness because being aware of how our intuitions work can lead us to avow, disavow or amend them. Most of my colleagues think people should be less flaky. So the questions are: what does it mean to be less flaky, and how might we do less of it?

My suggestion above isn’t particularly practicable as is, because it’s tricky to flesh out what it means to reason by thinking about what other people would do. After all, one’s flakiness only indirectly affects the flakiness of others. In part two, I’ll return to the question about appearances that Dunn’s piece raises. Understanding what flaking communicates to others, both about you and about the event that is no longer graced by your presence, can give us a more nuanced way of thinking about the topic.

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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