In an email exchange with Brian Lui, he asked me an interesting question about the rate of flaking in San Francisco:

I had a brief question too. I've read that the rate of "flaking" in San Francisco is really high, because everyone is so busy and there is so much to do. But then I thought, wouldn't that lead to an extra strong norm against flaking, because your time is too precious to get flaked on by someone? Apparently this doesn't happen and it's socially acceptable to flake. I feel really upset about that!

This is something I’ve noticed, to the extent that when I make plans with people I expect that at least half of the time those plans will change dramatically or if not be cancelled all together. And I don’t mean to just complain—I’m as big a culprit as anyone else!—but I wish this weren’t the case, because it makes scheduling difficult.

Brian’s question made me think: Why is the rate of flaking so high in San Francisco? And is it higher than in other "comparable" cities?

  1. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma! Everyone would be better off if no one flaked, but on the margins everyone wants to be able to flake, because their thing just this once is sooo important. And so everyone flakes, and everyone’s worse off as a result.
  2. Everyone is even more connected digitally here than most other places in the world. This includes more of a tendency to treat digital and in-person interaction as fungible (people don’t literally think this is true, but they’re treated as closer than in other cultures) which makes meeting in person appear less critical to building relationships because you can just text/Slack/message them. The irony is that by making it cheap to connect with people virtually, in-person relationships are even more valuable and exclusive.
    The other aspect is that you can basically always depend on someone having their phone on them and checking it throughout the day, so there’s more certainty that you can change plans at a moment’s notice if need be. This is probably less true in other places where people are less hooked into their laptops and cell phones.Back in the good ‘ol days, if you made Wednesday plans with someone on Tuesday, you’d better show up on Wednesday because otherwise they wouldn’t know what happened. But now, if something comes up you can just shoot them a text and disturb their day a lot less.
    There’s a weird induced demand here though—because it’s so much cheaper to cancel, people just cancel all of the time, which adds up to just as much of an inconvenience if not more. Sometimes I think we’d all be better off (at least in terms of scheduling) if texting were never invented. These communication technologies are of course available elsewhere too, but here they’re more often seen as substitutes rather than complements, which makes me think that the effects I’m describing are probably stronger.
  3. The Bay Area has this weird mix of intensity but also casualness that makes it really hard to call people out on rudely cancelling plans. The intensity and extent of opportunities makes it tempting to cancel in order to do something else that’s more pressing, and the casualness pushes the other person to just accept it. It’s part of a whole trend of accepting all lifestyle choices, being easygoing, which is mostly a good thing I think, but the cost is that it seems dickish to ask someone to change their behavior, even when it truly is rude.
    For instance a friend of mine recently canceled plans shortly before we were supposed to meet. This was really frustrating, because I’d taken an expensive Uber to get there on time. He didn’t know that, he just assumed I was coming from my apartment, but it still was super rude. He had a good reason, but I think he would’ve been more careful if there were a norm that I’d react more strongly. Instead, I didn’t say too much. I communicated some frustration, but not to the extent I would’ve have liked, because a major value in California is to be easygoing. This ends up not being great for him either though, because later that week when were supposed to meet up again I didn’t feel so bad about taking a while to respond re making plans for the following weekend. He in turn was easygoing about it (outwardly, at least!), but both of our time ended up being wasted. By losing the social norm to hold people accountable for being rude, we find ourselves on the wrong quadrant of the prisoners’ dilemma. Maybe this is worth it by making people more comfortable with each other, but I tend to think it just creates resentment under the surface. (Again I should be clear that I’m not upset about it really, my point is just that those sorts of micro frictions are totally avoidable.)
  4. Reasons #2 and #3 tend not to apply as much to older people, and SF, especially tech and my social circles, is disproportionately young. In cities where young people interact with older ones, they probably have to conform to norms of actually showing up when they say they will. We don’t really have that conforming pressure.
    We do have some people who are not as used to flaking, but they’re a small enough group that they’re forced to conform to the status quo rather than to change others’ behavior. Makes me wonder what the tipping point is to be to have the opposite effect. It might also have something to do with power dynamics, i.e. just a few powerful people have to set the norm and then everyone else will follow. I suspect it’s more about the absolute ratio though, since behavior within a specific category of interactions (i.e. with high status people) doesn’t necessarily bleed into other categories (i.e. with friends and family).
  5. EDIT: Brian made a good point that status probably has something to do with it, too. "There is some sort of status thing going on: if you are powerful, you can flake more. Then people who want to appear powerful imitate them and soon everyone is flaking."

Now this is all fairly hypocritical, as I flake all of the time. I’ve been getting better at it though. It’s caused me enough frustration to be on the other side of the equation that it’s really become embarrassing when I do it to other people. I’ve found it also forces me to be more thoughtful with the way I spend my time, which is a nice side effect. I’m more selective with how I think about my time, as I really try to stick to my commitments, whereas before I was much less thoughtful about scheduling because I always had flaking in my back pocket. One effect is that I say "no" to more things now, which is uncomfortable but on net better than flaking on the person.

This does have the downside of not communicating as strongly to them that you want to spend time with them, but it’s much more respectful than wasting their time. It reminds me of a quote from this New Yorker profile of Jony Ive:

Jobs’s taste for merciless criticism was notorious; Ive recalled that, years ago, after seeing colleagues crushed, he protested. Jobs replied, "Why would you be vague?," arguing that ambiguity was a form of selfishness: "You don’t care about how they feel! You’re being vain, you want them to like you." Ive was furious, but came to agree. "It’s really demeaning to think that, in this deep desire to be liked, you’ve compromised giving clear, unambiguous feedback," he said. He lamented that there were "so many anecdotes" about Jobs’s acerbity: "His intention, and motivation, wasn’t to be hurtful."

I will say, in the past few months I’ve become close with a friend who’s exceptionally good at planning and rarely flakes. She’s wonderful for lots of other reasons too, but this makes me like her even more. I always know that when we make plans they’ll happen, which makes me really not want to flake on her and also to not do so with others. So there is hope that a few thoughtful people can tip the balance in favor of the globally optimal equilibrium. (Let’s just hope it’s an equilibrium…)