The art of the blow-off

This article originally appeared on the now defunct Geek Etiquette website.

The primary rule is to consider how much your absence will inconvenience your friend, and how much damage it might do to the relationship. The more of these factors that hold, the firmer you should see the commitment as being:

  1. you have blown off this friend for any reason in the recent past
  2. he has not blown you off for any reason in the recent past
  3. he has invested emotional energy in you in the recent past (eg letting you talk about a breakup or work woes)
  4. the plans involve a small number of people, possibly just the two of you
  5. the plans involve him going out of his way, eg travelling a long distance, making a lot of phone calls, reminding you of the event fifteen times
  6. the plans involve the organiser paying for things, especially in advance (consider this carefully… he may regard telling you that he paid a deposit, or that the tickets aren’t refundable, as crass, so use some common sense)
  7. a number of other people have blown off this event already
  8. it’s close to the event, such that the organiser is likely to have chosen to say no to other things that might have been fun and/or profitable because he had committed to his plans with you
  9. you have expressed extreme enthusiasm about the plans (even if you actually express extreme enthusiasm about everything)

If you consider these, and either very few of them hold or your reason for the blowing off is stellar, you should:

If you consider these, and either very few of them hold or your reason for the blowing off is stellar, you should:

  1. make every effort to cancel as early as possible
  2. apologise sincerely and be accepting of and don’t call the organiser on any irritation that creeps into her voice
  3. if money was spent, make several firm offers to repay the organiser for the money she spent on you (about three firm offers is the right number). If you can possibly afford to, don’t ask her to buy back your ticket from you if there was one: give it to her for someone else’s use.
  4. when apologising, don’t explain the excuse in great detail. You probably should mention the general idea (“this big project has sprung a leak”, “John is in town”), but don’t lean on it, even if it’s really important to you, and especially if your motives are money (eg overtime rates).

The only time that you should dwell on your excuse is when your excuse is traditional: that is, you were sick or another friend or family member died or was sick and needed you. Attempts to downplay that come across really strangely (eg “I had this seizure type thingie, oh well, I’m so so so sorry, I’m such a bad person”). Your friend will want to help or sympathise, most likely.

Otherwise, the problem with explaining your excuse in great detail is that it comes across as tantamount to explaining to the nearest cent exactly what the relationship is worth to you (“ok, so I’m less important than the boyfriend’s last minute availability”, “ok, so overtime rates trump my friendship”). More details actually make this impression worse, not better, because they show just how cold-bloodedly you calculate the worth of your friends. This may seem like nonsense—we’re all upfront hyper-rational geeks here who should be happy to have our friendship valued at market rates—but remember, it’s best for her when you over-commit to a friendship. So showing signs that you’re only rationally committed is hurtful, and not only at the conscious level either.

In some cases, eg hard to get tickets or the like, it can be nice to make gentle offers of a replacement for yourself. “Please go ahead and find someone else to take with my ticket. If you don’t find anyone, I know my friend Karen would be happy to go with you, and you’d love her, so give me a call.”

The best way to make amends is to firstly be careful to honour social engagements with this person very highly the next couple of times and depending on the level of trouble you put them to, try and assume the organiser role next time. Take the trouble on yourself, and furthermore organise to do something that your friend likes, at a time and location especially convenient for her, rather than yourself.

Oh, and if the reason you are blowing your friend off is because you suspect that he or she is romantically and/or sexually interested in you, and you are trying to gently signal your own lack of interest, this is a bad way to do it. The good way to do it is to bite the bullet and deliver that awkward “um, so, I’m not sure if I’m right, but just in case… I, um, I’m not interested in dating/shagging you” line and then give him or her a week or two without unnecessary contact so that he or she (a) believes you and (b) can choose to put on a social mask and pretend that this interlude never happened.

On the other hand, if you are blowing off a friend BUT you are romantically or sexually interested in him or her, just your luck, they probably will read blowing them off as a irrevocable sign of your lack of interest. If for some reason the time is not ripe to make a completely unambiguous move, you need to really work hard and express your regret at missing this thing, and furthermore, organise a replacement event almost immediately, ideally one that’s slightly more intimate and slightly harder to organise than the one they organised for you.