Have been some interesting conversations on friendship lately.

First, there was the question of Mincat and the Flake. What do you do with a friend who seems dear, with whom you think you forged a bond, who then disappears and surfaces only to be shifty about making plans? Commitment phobia seems to have become an epidemic, but while it’s fashionable for people to declare themselves commitment phobic in romantic relationships, I’ve actually seen more commitment phobia exhibited in friendships.

In my early 20s, among the young working population, it used to be and probably still is fashionable to never commit to a plan lest something better came up. Especially on the crucial Friday-Saturday nights. Even those who said they’d be there needed to be taken with a pinch of sort. I remember being completely surprised at how many people turned up at a birthday celebration I organised at a pub (by “organised” I mean told people I would be going to the pub and asked them to come and then bought one round of drinks). I had fully expected about five, turned out to be about 15, all of whom seemed dedicated to the cause of my birthday.

One of the ways to tell who your real friends were was to look for this kind of dedication, or at least a feeling that they were reasonably certain not to ditch. It appears that this is still the case. We are now in our early 30s and a whole decade on, there are people my age who haven’t grown up enough to master the art of a firm “yes” or “no” and meaning it. Maybe I have such a small friends circle because my first rule of counting someone a friend is that they if they say they’ll do something, they can be generally counted on to do it.

I have to say that my 20s left me with a vestigial scepticism. Even until a couple of years ago, I always wondered at the back of my mind whether my closest friends might ditch a plan at the last minute. But I have been pleasantly surprised time and again until finally I take some people for granted in meaning what they commit to. I can count those people on one hand but they are there and for them I am grateful.

But how to deal with the others? While discussing Mincat’s dilemma, I realised that there is method to the madness. Here’s a step by step guide:

  1. There has to be a roughly a three strike rule for ditching. Even with great excuses, making a plan with someone and then chickening out three times either successively or if the number of times you’ve ditched is greater than or equal to the number of times you haven’t, is rude and unacceptable. But more than that, it indicates that the ditchee is not a priority. If you are a ditchee, you need to get the message and either move on or adjust your expectations accordingly.
  2. While it’s natural to be hurt about being treated badly by someone, determine how you feel about the person. Normally in these situations people fall into roughly two categories: those that you actually don’t care that much about anyway (in my case, an incredible number of people fall into this category, so all I have to do is brush off my irritation with them for inconveniencing me and strike them off my list) and those that you really struck a connection with.
  3. For Category 1, stop contacting them. If they contact you, decline in a friendly way. Variations of “sorry, can’t make it”, which when offered three times or so normally makes the invitations stop. End of story, energy conserved.
  4. For Category 2, realise that no matter how much you wish you could be friends and would be willing to invest in the relationship, the other party clearly doesn’t feel the same way. Thus, it’s time to cut your losses. The first approach is to do exactly the same as you would do with Category 1, i.e. desist and decline. The second approach is to relegate them firmly to the second or third tier of your friends circle, and then engage with them only at your own convenience, while taking steps to limit damage of a repeat ditching. Thus, don’t schedule a meeting with them if you have anything better to do because in all likelihood you’re going to be even more upset if they ditch than you would otherwise be. Meet them at your convenience, don’t go out of your way. Then, on the day of the meeting, remind them that you’re supposed to be meeting and are they still up for it. If they show any signs of flaking, deflect it with a firm “fine, actually I have other plans so let’s do this some other time”. This ensures that you can get on with your life and are not in suspense about whether they are going to show up or not. Rinse and repeat, but only at long intervals.

And what if you’re feeling flaky? If there are people who don’t want to see me, there are surely people I don’t want to see too.

One option is to clearly break up. Explicitly say “Hey, I’d rather not meet you again. Ever.” Or “This isn’t working, let’s move on”. I’ve done that about once in my recent life, told a friend, not even a very close one, that she was getting on my nerves. I regret it. First, I think these conversations are probably only worth it, if at all, with close friends who are likely to pop up often enough for a clean break to be necessary. For second or third tier people some variation of the feint and distance might be more appropriate. It’s easier on everyone, as eventually people get the hint (hopefully). And it allows everyone to save face because nothing was ever said. Relations are still cordial as no one was caught off guard.

Even with people I don’t really want to see on a regular basis, I do them the courtesy of not making plans when I don’t intend to show up. So, if I’m invited somewhere, and I don’t want to go or not sure I want to go, I decide and make an excuse giving them enough advance notice. I never ditch at the last moment, unless something really urgent comes up.

With close friends who I feel the need to step away from, I have been practising the distancing approach. It is long winded but I think in the end, people get the picture. Then they need to practice the above steps on me and we’re all reset.