By Adrian Liu
This is the second piece in a miniseries called “On flakiness.” Read the other parts at this link.
What is flakiness? Last week, I surveyed what’s been written about flakiness in this paper, and found that the majority relied on this intuitive notion: Flaking is canceling plans (perhaps at the last minute) without a legitimate excuse.
But this does not exhaust our intuitions about flaking. When we decide whether or not to flake, or when we react to someone flaking on us, we don’t just care about whether the excuse was justified, or whether the cancellation occurred too close to the time of the event. We care additionally about how the flakiness appears, or what it communicates. This article, part two in a series on flakiness, examines these aspects of flakiness. I will suggest that, in situations of interpersonal flaking, what flakiness communicates is perhaps what we care about the most.
What does flaking communicate? If a friend flakes on dinner twice in a row, we may think that they don’t value our friendship as much as we previously thought. If a club member flakes on a club meeting, we might think the club is not the most important thing to them. Intentionally or not, we take their act of flaking as communicating something. And likewise, when I decide to flake on a dinner because I need to finish an essay, I do so with some knowledge of how this will appear to my friend. I hope she will be charitable, but I know that if I do it often I will appear more and more flaky.
Interpreting the flakiness of others is fallible. Psychologists suggest that we tend to think of our behavior as responding to the necessities of the situation, but sometimes think others’ behavior is determined by their personality. I might think that I flaked because I had two problem sets and an essay that I needed to finish, and so canceling was really warranted in that situation. But I might think someone else flaked on me because they are essentially a flaky person.
Psychological biases notwithstanding, because most of us also have a theory of mind (other people’s minds, that is), we can to a greater or lesser extent predict how flakiness might be received. So I know that my friend might take my flakiness to mean that I don’t care as much about them, whether or not I intend this. And because I know that this might be communicated by my flaking, it becomes a factor in my decision whether or not to flake.
This is not hopelessly theoretical — it’s often how we actually make decisions and interpret the decisions of others. For example: Alice and Bob like each other, so Alice invites Bob to dinner, and Bob agrees. But an hour before the scheduled time, Bob flakes: “I’m too tired,” he says. Alice shrugs it off. But then Bob flakes twice more, with similarly weak excuses. What is Alice to think now? There are three main options. First, Alice could think that Bob is essentially a flaky person, and thus becomes uninterested. Second, Alice could think Bob has an unusually busy week; that this is an outlier. But based on Bob’s excuses, this explanation seems unlikely. Third, Alice could think that Bob is in fact not interested in her after all, and thus drops the matter.
In her third judgment, Alice could be correct for two reasons. Perhaps Bob has lost interest, but doesn’t consciously realize it. Nonetheless, his motivation to see Alice has waned, and so he decides to cancel outings. He doesn’t realize how Alice will interpret this. We sigh. Poor Alice, and so much the worse for Bob and his future relationships.
The other possible way in which Alice could be correct is the following: Bob has a high social intelligence, so he realized that Alice could interpret his flaking as expressing a lack of interest. Recognizing this, Bob examined himself, and found that yes, in fact, he had lost interest.
Bob then had two options. The explicit option was to tell Alice he had lost interest. But the option that would allow both Bob and Alice to save face and avoid an awkward situation was precisely for Bob to flake and for both Bob and Alice to understand what Bob meant by flaking.
By flaking intentionally and with this knowledge, Bob communicated something with his flaking. It wasn’t simply that Alice would think Bob flaked because he was uninterested. Alice would think that, by flaking, Bob meant that he was uninterested.
If, instead of simply flaking on Alice, Bob stopped texting her altogether, we would have a paradigm case of ghosting. Ghosting’s similarity with this case illustrates that what’s going on here is not some complicated game theory — it’s something we intuitively make use of in our everyday lives.
To recapitulate: Our armchair intuition might have been that, all things being equal, flaking is ethically undesirable. But things are rarely equal, and once we’re in the thick of interpersonal relationships, our ethical intuitions about flaking should become more complicated. In the real world, we should recognize that there are circumstances in which flaking plays an important communicative role — for instance, situations where it would be socially awkward or inappropriate to discuss one’s feelings explicitly, or situations where we simply don’t have the guts to be upfront.
Alice might still think that Bob’s flaking was ill-mannered. But would Alice prefer Bob to come right out and say he’s just not that into her? I can imagine an Alice who might prefer being let down tacitly. This Alice says, “Ah, he’s just not that into me,” and forgets about this flaky Bob fellow, going on with her life.
So much the better for Alice. In this case, flakiness has done its job.
Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.