6 Things You Can Say When You Need to Cancel Plans, According to an Etiquette Expert

updated Sep 20, 2022
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Credit: Jenny Chang-Rodriguez

Sometimes, canceling plans is a necessity, whether you need some last-minute alone time or something more urgent came up. While bailing on a coffee date or birthday party is hard enough, figuring out how to do so politely can feel complicated, but Seattle-based etiquette expert and manners coach Jennifer Porter says it’s possible to cancel plans without compromising your relationships.

Here are her recommendations for scenarios you might find yourself in: 

Credit: Jenny Chang-Rodriguez

How to Cancel Plans When You Can’t Go

When something comes up that conflicts with pre-arranged plans, reach out by voice (aka a phone call) or in-person to break your plans. Don’t just shoot off a text that can get overlooked. If you have to leave a voicemail, always ask for confirmation of receipt as a considerate gesture.

In your call or visit, Porter suggests being straightforward but brief. “Express your disappointment over having to break plans and, most importantly, offer an alternative day or two. This shows the person that you do want to get together and respect them enough to put in the effort for a reschedule,” she says.

Credit: Jenny Chang-Rodriguez

How to Cancel Plans When You Don’t Want to Go—Because of Anxiety or You Just Don’t Have the Energy

If you’ve ever finished up with work and had an all-encompassing desire to camp out on the couch, you know how tempting it can be to back out of your dinner plans. But before you bail, do a little self-questioning.

“When I feel this way, I first ask myself how I’ll feel after having gone. If I’m under the weather, then perhaps I’ll feel worse, but if it’s a momentary feeling of ennui, then chances are I’ll feel better for having gone and made the effort,” Porter says. 

If you decide to cancel plans because you simply just don’t want to go, Porter recommends being upfront and communicating in person rather than via text. Be genuine with your desire for a raincheck, and offer a few alternative dates. 

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How to Cancel Plans Last Minute

The key to canceling plans at the last minute (which Porter defines as less than a couple of hours before the event) is ensuring the other person receives your cancellation before the event. She recommends following the same steps you would in other scenarios—calling rather than texting, expressing remorse, and offering alternative dates—and then confirming your cancellation message was received. 

Credit: Jenny Chang-Rodriguez

How to Cancel Plans When They Involve an RSVP, Reservation, or Ticket

If someone else purchased a ticket for an event you can no longer attend, always offer to reimburse the friend or colleague for the cost. If that’s out of the question, Porter suggests sending a bottle of wine or other sweet gesture to the venue if you can’t attend.

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How to Cancel Plans When You’re Hosting

It’s hard to imagine the stress of canceling an event at the last minute when you’re the host, but life happens and so do busted plans. “When this happens, reach out quickly by evite or the original way you sent the invite and update on that channel, then start calling and texting your guests to tell them the news,” says Porter. “Be brief, and try to offer a rescheduled date when you make contact.”

Credit: Jenny Chang-Rodriguez

How to Cancel Plans When You Aren’t Ready to Talk About Why

There may be times when you just don’t feel like getting into an explanation, or you’re simply not ready to talk about it. Often, we feel compelled to explain our situation whether or not we’re ready because we believe it will relieve any sense of guilt or burden when inconveniencing another with broken plans. But you never owe anyone an explanation you’re not comfortable sharing.

Rather than ruminating on the reason, Porter says you can simply share that you’re very sorry to have to cancel and that something has come up that requires your immediate attention.

“If you’d like, you can let the party know that you would love to share more when the time is right,” she says. “Doing this gives those with whom you’re canceling plans the feeling that you trust them and will share when the time is right.”

Finally, remember that if a crisis is causing you to break a date, most people will understand and want to help. “I encourage people to ask for help when they need it. This is the heart and soul behind good manners and genuine courtesy,” says Porter.