It’s Friday night.
You’re waiting for your friend to arrive for dinner. They’re 5 minutes late. 10 minutes. 30 minutes. What on earth happened to them? Did they get into an accident? Is their pet sick? Did they just blow you off because they got a better offer for tickets to a basketball game?
Being stood up or having plans canceled for any reason isn’t comfortable, and you’re not the only one who feels that way. With just a bit of consideration for the other person in the first place and a few tips on how to go about it, you can learn how to cancel plans without risking your relationships in the process.
Reasons You May Need to Cancel Plans
There are two main categories for canceling plans. The first is unexpected and unavoidable external situations. The other is the more complicated world of internal bandwidth, including mental and emotional well-being.
- Illness or injury: No one likes canceling because they have the flu or a migraine, but since we can’t predict when we may be sick, we make plans as though we never will. Occasionally, we’ll need to give our bodies the rest they need.
- Scheduling conflicts: For appointments of the same type, priority should go to your original commitment; however, sometimes, a change of circumstance requires a last-minute cancellation. For example, an appointment with a doctor with limited availability may require rescheduling lunch with a friend.
- Family emergencies: Most people will understand if the need to care for a sick family member or a parent’s health suddenly declines or if your daughter just broke up with her first boyfriend and needs mom around for comfort.
- Unexpected work commitments: As much as we’d love to leave work at the office every day at 5:00, the world no longer works that way, and sometimes we find ourselves with a last-minute project that conflicts with other commitments.
- Weather-related issues: Snow storms, bad road conditions—it happens.
- Being emotionally overwhelmed or drained: Many people today understand the need for self-care to avoid burnout. That said, it is possible to use mental health as an excuse to avoid commitments, which can be detrimental to relationships and overall well-being in the long run.
True friends (and other decent humans) realize that life happens, and a good friend will often be understanding if given the opportunity. For them to understand the situation, it requires at least a little communication on your part.
We’ll talk later about how not to feel guilty about canceling plans, but a good rule of thumb is to cancel plans only when you have a good reason.
As you are making plans, if there is anything you’re aware of that may reasonably conflict and would take precedence, let the other person know ahead of time.
For example, you might say, “I’d love to come with you to the park that day, but just a heads up, if my softball team makes it through to the championship (which, honestly, is unlikely), I’d be out of town that weekend. Can I give a soft yes for now, and if that changes, I’ll let you know?”
Knowing the science behind communication can be a valuable tool for making those conversations more manageable, which is where this freebie can come in!
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5 Things to Ask Yourself Before You Cancel Your Plans
When deciding if you should cancel previous plans, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- If you’ve made a commitment, at the end of the day, it’s your trustworthiness, reliability, and reputation1https://hbr.org/2018/09/you-have-to-stop-canceling-and-rescheduling-things-really on the line. Is what you’re considering doing instead worth the damage, however slight, that canceling will cause to your relationship with the other person?
- Know your “why”: While saying “something came up” is the simplest way to get out of a commitment, it’s not at all a satisfying explanation for the recipient. In most cases, you should be prepared to offer an explanation to the person about why you are canceling on them.
- Ask yourself, “How will I feel once I get there?”. Personally, I’m a regular at the local rec center’s aqua zumba class. When I start working late or trying to make a deadline, I often feel like I can’t afford to take a break. But in the nearly two years I’ve been going, I’ve never once regretted attending class once I actually got there.
- Gauge the consequences: Not all events are created the same. Skipping a company-wide holiday mixer won’t have the same impact as canceling a church dinner you agreed to organize. Ultimately, the decision is yours, but be aware of how your absence may affect the event before you cancel.
- If you cancel often, you may need to evaluate your professional or social bandwidth. The solution to avoiding canceling could be a more selective approach to what you agree to. If you need help learning how to say no, check out “6 Effective Tips to Politely Say No (that actually work!)“.
8 Tips to Cancel Plans Effectively
Now that we’ve discussed why you may need to cancel plans and what to consider before canceling plans let’s talk about how to go about it.
Provide As Much Notice As Possible
As soon as it becomes clear you have a conflict in your schedule, let anyone else who may be affected know. When possible, give others at least a day’s notice. One study2https://online.ucpress.edu/collabra/article/9/1/57549/195121/How-to-Cancel-Plans-With-Friends-A-Mixed-Methods found that even among friends, being informed just minutes before the event is the most annoying way to hear about a cancellation.
The timing of when you choose to inform the other person will vary depending on the situation. Long-term plans that require more upfront time and preparation may require that you update others as soon as there is a possibility of conflict to avoid making reservations or buying tickets that may be harder to cancel.
If you get ill, it may make sense to let others know as soon as possible so that they can change their plans, or you may wait to see if you’re feeling better when it’s time. Either way, consider the feelings and preferences of the others involved.
Pro Tip: As previously mentioned, if you are aware of potential conflicts, mention them before you accept the invitation. For example, “Your birthday party sounds great, and I’d love to come. Just a head’s up, my boss is talking about doing a work retreat that day, and if we do, I probably won’t be able to make it back in time. Is it OK if I let you know when I hear the final schedule for work?”
Honesty and sincerity are crucial to maintaining strong relationships. Research3https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2023/cancelling-plans-research shows that while most study participants said canceling plans wouldn’t affect their friendship, over 80% said they would be upset to find out the reason provided was a lie.
You don’t need to come up with the perfect excuse; just offer an honest explanation about why you won’t be able to keep your appointment. You are allowed to say if the reason is too personal or sensitive. For example, “I know this is last minute notice, but I won’t be able to come tonight. I’m dealing with some family issues that I need to take care of. Everyone’s OK and safe, and I can explain more once it’s all resolved, but for now, I need to be home. Thanks for understanding!”
Prioritize Talking Over Text
As useful and ubiquitous as texting is in society today, nothing quite beats a good, old-fashioned phone call when you have to cancel on someone.
While texting may feel less comfortable, taking the time to call shows respect for the other person and allows them to hear your tone and inflections as you explain the situation. It also helps you know they got the message and will enable you to communicate clearly and avoid misunderstandings.
10 Steps to Conquering Your Phone Anxiety has more suggestions for successfully tackling that call!
Explain, But Accept That Excuses Are Subjective
When explaining the situation, it’s essential to realize that what you consider a completely valid excuse for canceling may or may not appear that way to others. What we think is acceptable is based on personal circumstances, beliefs, and priorities, which can vary widely from person to person.
It’s important to communicate clearly and respectfully when providing an excuse and be open to understanding the other person’s perspective. As needed, explaining why the reason is important to you can help prevent misunderstandings, conflicts, and hurt feelings.
Offer To Reschedule
Offering to reschedule is a clear way to show others they are important to you and you would still like to spend time with them. For example, you can say, “I was really looking forward to the game this weekend. The team is playing here again in three weeks. Would you like to go together then?”
One reason canceling can cause tension in a relationship is if the other person feels like they are less important to you than whatever came up or you don’t want to spend time with them. Suggesting a new date and activity can help ease the concern that you don’t value the person’s time or relationship.
Pro Tip: When you have to cancel, especially on friends you don’t see often, try maintaining a conversation with some great questions so they know you are thinking of them. For ideas, read 257 Juicy Questions to Ask Your Friends.
Offer An Alternative
Rather than canceling plans entirely, you can offer an alternative activity. For example, if you’re just getting over a headache and are not really in the mood to go dancing as planned, you can call your friend and say, “Hey! I’m still dealing with this stupid cold, and I haven’t had the time I needed this week just to rest and recover. I still want to see you tonight, but I am not up for going out. Do you want to come over for a movie night?”
Cover Your Portion Of Any Expenses
If the event involves an RSVP, a ticket, or other expenses, it’s polite etiquette to offer to cover the costs incurred on your behalf, even if you won’t use it. It’s unfair to your friend to have the negative emotions of losing your company while simultaneously getting stuck with the bill.
You can say, “I’m sorry I have to bail on the play. If you find someone else who wants to, I hope you have a great time, but either way, please let me know how much I owe you. I don’t want you stuck paying for both tickets. You can’t possibly take up two seats by yourself! (Well, maybe use one as a footrest? 🙂).”
Depending on the circumstances, they may not accept your offer to pay. They may offer the ticket to someone else or find a way to be reimbursed. Regardless, be willing to cover any expenses incurred on your behalf and leave it up to them to accept or decline the offer.
Apologize As Appropriate
This step is not only optional but not necessary in some cases. There is a culture of over-apologizing in our society, especially among women. While knowing when to apologize is important, just as valuable is understanding when an apology isn’t necessary.
In the context of needing to cancel plans, the rule of thumb is: if the situation is out of your control, you aren’t responsible for apologizing. For example, if you need to cancel a lunch date to attend a funeral, nothing about the situation demands an apology.
Feel free to explain the situation: “Hey! I was looking forward to our lunch next week, but my grandma just passed away, and the funeral was scheduled for the same time. Can you check your calendar for next week?”
When they hear about circumstances out of your control, most people don’t expect an apology or even notice the lack of one.
For more advice on apologizing, look at 7 Elements of a Sincere Apology (And How to Offer One).
Canceling Romantic Dates
Canceling on a romantic partner (or potential partner) can feel daunting. If you like them, you don’t want them to get the wrong idea that you’re not interested. The same strategies above apply, with the added note that you’ll want to clarify that you’re still interested. There are two ways to help with that:
- Tell them! You can say, “I was really looking forward to our date tonight, and I’m bummed I have to cancel, but….”
- Offer to reschedule. As a rule, if you didn’t want to see someone again, you wouldn’t offer to schedule another time. Proposing an alternative time when you cancel helps reassure the other person that you are, in fact, looking forward to seeing them again.
Example Scripts For Canceling Plans
There are infinite reasons you may need to cancel, but here are some suggestions for the most common ones:
“Hey [Name], it’s [Your Name] calling. Listen, I was so excited to have lunch on Friday, but my work just scheduled a mandatory training that day, and I won’t be able to leave like I thought I would. When are you available to reschedule?”
“Hi [Name], it’s [Your Name]. I’m sorry to call last minute, but my daughter came home from school sick, and I need to stick around the house tonight. Can we try again next week?”
Feeling Overwhelmed or Drained
“Hey [Name], I know we were planning to go to Jazz Night tonight, but I had a really rough day at work, and I don’t think I’d be very good company tonight. I need a night to decompress and get my head on straight. Are you available to go out tomorrow night instead?”
Once you get used to the formula, adapting it to your particular circumstances is relatively straightforward.
How To Cancel Last Minute
Needing to cancel at the last minute is bound to happen at some point. So how can you communicate in a way that is clear and respectful of the other person?
The fundamentals are all the same: give them as much notice as possible, Be honest, give an explanation, and avoid making excuses for yourself or blaming others.
In addition, you may find that keeping the tone light and friendly helps reassure the other person that you aren’t canceling because of them. Let them know it isn’t out of disrespect or annoyance (if you do feel disrespect or annoyance at the person you’re canceling on, that is even more of a reason NOT to cancel. Take the opportunity to discuss whatever is going on in the relationship!)
You’ll also want to confirm they got your message before the meeting. Shooting them a text and assuming they’ll get it eventually isn’t enough.
Do’s And Don’ts Of Canceling Via Text
Text can be an efficient way to communicate. At the same time (and for the same reasons), important information transmitted through text can come off as impersonal or disrespectful. Since it’s difficult to convey tone and emotion, canceling over text is more likely to lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
- Try calling first
- Let them know you would have preferred to talk in person
- Provide an explanation of why you need to cancel
- Mention any details that can help clarify the situation
- Offer to speak by phone or in person
- Ask for confirmation so you know they received your message.
- Wait until the last minute to cancel
- Offer a vague reason
- Ignore follow-up messages
- Make it a habit
When you are respectful, clear, and accommodating, you can minimize any negative impact and maintain a positive relationship with the person you’re canceling on.
Research shows2https://online.ucpress.edu/collabra/article/9/1/57549/195121/How-to-Cancel-Plans-With-Friends-A-Mixed-Methods that given the option, people prefer some advance notice, a call, or text if plans are being canceled, even if it is last minute.
Here are examples of how you might cancel via text:
“Hey, Ben! I just tried calling but missed you and wanted to reach out as soon as possible. I got pulled into a strategy meeting lasting way longer than scheduled. Since I have that softball game at 7:00, I won’t have time to pick up the trailer tonight like planned. Can I stop by tomorrow instead? Let me know when you get this, and if you have any questions, I can call you on my way home.”
“I know you’re in class, so I’m texting instead of calling. My wife came home and had a rough day – I need to skip game night tonight and help with the kids. I’m sorry I can’t be there, but I’ll be back next week.”
How To Manage Your Feelings When You Need to Cancel Plans
It’s unlikely you’re canceling plans when everything is fine, and you’re feeling good about life. You probably canceled because something just went wrong in your day. Now, on top of the emotional stress of dealing with something that requires your immediate attention, you may be giving up something you were looking forward to.
You may feel disappointment at missing out on fun plans, guilt about not following through on your commitment, or anxiety about how the other person will react or feel.
So here are some things to keep in mind as you are processing this change in your plans:
Remember Your Priorities
If you have decided to cancel plans, it means you’ve decided that the reason you’re canceling is a higher priority for you. If you find yourself canceling plans for things that are actually a lower priority, it’s time to reevaluate your process for making commitments. Trust that by putting your highest priorities first, you’re making the right decisions about spending your time and resources.
Trust Your Relationship
It’s tempting to think that you risk ruining your relationship with close friends, family, or other contacts with every last-minute cancellation. Others understand that life happens, and sometimes unexpected cancellations are unavoidable. By communicating openly and honestly, you can explain the circumstances without damaging your relationships.
One time, I had to cancel Thanksgiving dinner plans with my siblings when I was at risk of getting them sick just days before the holiday. When I reached out to tell them I wasn’t going to make it to our first Thanksgiving together in years, my brothers not only understood but offered to make me a plate and drop it off at my apartment.
Research shows4https://news.virginia.edu/content/human-brains-are-hardwired-empathy-friendship-study-shows that our brains interpret a threat to our friends the same as if we are in danger ourselves. This research helps explain why healthy friendships are supportive in challenging circumstances. Allowing your friends and family the chance to understand what is going on in your life and support you can strengthen your bond.
Your friends probably know you well enough to understand your priorities, whether that is your family, a specific work project, or your health and well-being. They won’t be easily offended that something else took precedence this time.
If you’re curious about the science behind friendships, check out 7 Science-Backed Reasons Why Friends are Important.
Never Miss Twice
Author and habit expert James Clear offers a simple rule that can be readily applied to canceling plans: Never miss twice. He cites research that says missing any single day of a particular habit (such as socializing with friends) has no long-term impact on maintaining the routine.
It stands to reason that canceling plans once won’t necessarily have a long-term impact on any particular relationship. The thing to avoid, rather, is missing twice in a row. This, Clear says, forms a pattern that is the beginning of a habit.
If you tend to be overly critical of your shortcomings and imperfections, consider using the “never miss twice” rule as your standard for canceling. When you have to cancel on someone, make sure you can attend the next time you plan to meet.
Cancel Plans and Keep Friends
Needing to cancel plans can be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be.
- Only cancel when you must: You can maintain trust in your relationships, even when you need to cancel, by reserving the need to cancel only for high-priority reasons. Be sure you know why you are canceling.
- Communicate openly and honestly: Friends understand that unexpected things come up. You can maintain strong relationships by honestly helping them understand what came up that requires your time and attention.
- Reach out by phone instead of text: Making a call rather than texting offers several advantages. One is confirming they got the message, as well as being able to use tone and inflection to communicate your feelings.
- Give as much notice as possible: While last-minute changes are bound to happen, offer as much notice as possible to the other people. Give them an opportunity to process and make alternate plans.
- Offer to reschedule: Help your friends feel they are important to you by offering to reschedule. Propose an alternate activity or another day and time.
- Reduce your emotional response: You can minimize feelings of guilt by remembering your priorities, trusting your relationships, and never canceling twice in a row. Cancel when you need to, and keep your word as much as you can.
Maintaining a friendship is work but worth it! Once you’ve mastered canceling plans, if you’re looking for the ultimate guide to making friends, you’re in luck! Science of People has created one: How to Make Friends: The Ultimate Guide!
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