Dear Helena,

I recently had 8:30 p.m. dinner plans with a friend. When I called at 8 p.m. to let him know I was on my way to the restaurant, he asked, “Didn’t you get my email?” Turns out he had emailed me at 5:30 p.m. (after I had already left my office) saying he needed to cancel because he was swamped at work. I know sometimes cancellations are unavoidable, but isn’t it rude to do it via after-hours email at the last minute? And are work obligations a sufficient excuse to cancel plans that were made a week before?—Solo Diner

Dear Solo Diner,

Hairdressers require 24 hours notice if you have to cancel. That way, they can use your slot to see another client. You should treat a friend with the same respect. In fact, you should treat your friend like a celebrity stylist who is in town for 48 hours. In other words, only bag if you absolutely have to.

“Have tos” involving your job fall into two categories: curveballs and softballs. Most people will not resent that you cancel if you’ve been thrown a curveball—unexpected and urgent work. For example, Emily Gunston, a public defender in Contra Costa County in Northern California, says that judges sometimes require her to write motions due the next day. But it’s not OK to cancel if all you have is a softball excuse—work you could have dealt with earlier or could do at a later time. Such an excuse is insulting. As Gunston says, “Then if you cancel, what you’re saying is, ‘I’d rather get a lot of work done than hang out with you.’”

In some jobs, staying late is expected as a sign of commitment, even when the work isn’t urgent. Explain to your boss that you have unbreakable plans and will do the work the next morning. What if you accept overwork as the price of success? Then sacrifice sleep, not your social life.

Just feeling generally tired or stressed from your job is no excuse to cancel. Todd Oppenheimer, a San Francisco journalist, says, “What really gets me about canceling is the phrase people use, ‘It’s just been crazy.’ When someone says that to me, I want to pick up my calendar and say, ‘Look. Ever seen one of these?’” Your friend should not be made to suffer because you overscheduled yourself and are now tired.

If you have a legitimate “have-to,” here are polite ways to cancel.

1. Use the phone. Not everyone has 24–7 Internet access, so an email may not reach your friend in time. Gunston points out, “Email seems like an avoidance technique.” Your friend may think you’re afraid to face him directly.

2. Don’t delay. You might put off the call for fear of irritating the other person, but the longer you delay, the more annoyed she’ll be.

3. Make it believable. Instead of “I have too much work,” say: “The judge asked me to write a motion for tomorrow.” Believable excuses are specific—and succinct. You don’t want to sound like you’re explaining too much.

4. Reschedule/compensate. Rescheduling demonstrates that you aren’t just trying to wriggle out of the meeting. And let your friend choose the time and place. Better yet, promise to treat him. If you’re the kind of person whose job is so high-powered that you have to stay late, you can probably afford it.

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