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Question #113: How do I make plans with flaky San Francisco people?

Dear Captain Awkward:

So I am a recentish transplant to San Francisco at 28.

I have many acquaintances here from various parts of my life, as SF is one of those cities people just end up in. These people are not connected to each other in any way.

As I attempt to build a friendship circle out here I have to deal with lots of people being flaky – not responding to emails, or breaking plans etc. I know from my own life I engage in this behavior under a few circumstances: 1) when I’m just not prioritizing the other person for one reason or another or 2) I’m depressed and avoiding social commitments like it’s my job.

I know for a fact a few of these potential-friends are sort of lonely and isolated, and some have very vibrant social lives. For the people I know are lonely / isolated I pretty much keep on going back to them with invites of one kind or another. For people with actual lives I’ll leave it at two or so before moving along.

What’s your take on how best to handle flaky people you are attempting to friend?

My friend Miguel is from Brazil, and describes a strange social ritual where you will run into someone you haven’t seen in a while and he’ll say “You have to come over to my house tomorrow!” and you say “Okay, I’ll be there for sure!” but you should not show up at his house unless the invitation included a specific time.  Otherwise it was just friendly chatter and not a real invitation, and everyone just knows this unwritten rule.  I wonder if San Francisco has something similar going on, where “Let’s get together soon!” doesn’t really mean anything?

It was weird when I moved to Chicago from Washington, DC when I was 26.  DC was full of young single people and was definitely the town of “Let’s go to happy hour after work.”  When I moved out here and was working for an ad agency, I tried asking people out for drinks, and they’d say “Um, sorry, I can’t – I have to take the Metra to the suburbs” or “Sorry, I can’t, my husband is picking me up right after work.”  I found the words “Metra,” “suburbs,” and “husband” very confusing at first but eventually found out that Chicago is a town where people who like you will eventually have you over for BBQs or board games (whereas in NYC you could know people for a decade without ever seeing the inside of their living space).

I think you’re doing the right thing by not pushing busy people and by giving depressed introverts several chances to come through.  One way you might try handling this is to find activities that either a) require advance tickets or b) find things that don’t require the presence of the other person for you to enjoy yourself.

I know I personally get bogged down in the email back-and-forth.  Here is how I like to be asked to do stuff:

Hey Jennifer, would you like to do x with me at y place at z time?  Let me know.”  That is also how I tend to ask people to do things.  Specific event + specific time = person can more easily commit or decline and will be more likely to suggest a specific alternative if they can’t make your suggestion.

Unfortunately, here is how a lot of making plans goes.  Imagine every single line that follows is its own separate email and the exchange lasts over the course of 3-4 weeks.

“We should do something sometime!”

“We totally should?”

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know – anything is good.”

“Howabout a movie?”

“Sure.”

“What movie?”

“Do you want to see Another Earth?”

“Already saw it.  Plus it’s a staring-into-space movie.”

“What do you suggest, then?”

“Howabout Straw Dogs?”

“No, too rapey.”

You’re right, that is super-rapey, I’m sorry I suggested it.”

“The Debt?”  

“Seen it.”

“Ok, your turn to suggest something then?”

“The Help?  My mom liked it.”

“Shoot me in the face.  I mean…um…no, I don’t want to see that.”

“Rise of Planet of the Apes?”

“Okay. Sure.”

“What day?”

“Saturday?”

“I can’t on Saturday.”

“Sunday?”

“Hrm…Okay, if we do a matinee.”

“Do you want to have brunch first?”

“Sure, where do you want to meet?”

That’s 24 separate emails, people, and you don’t even have a time or a definite meeting place. Jesus wept, that is just TOO HARD and I DON’T CARE.  There is no one on the planet that I like enough to go through that.

When you’re just meeting people and you don’t know what they like, I can see how it’s tempting to try to ease into it.  But what I suggest is that you take the lead in finding out cool things that you would like to do in the city, and then asking your new friends to do a specific thing that happens at a specific time and place with you, and, if it requires tickets, ask “Shall I reserve tickets for us?” which tends to lock things down a bit more.  And even if it doesn’t involve advance tickets, still use this approach:

“I’m going to this cool event at cool place at cool o’clock on this cool day – I’d love for you to join me.”

You could even present it as two options – “I’m going to karaoke at this bar on Saturday bar, and I thought I’d try this cool restaurant for Sunday brunch – would you like to join me for any of that?”

Assume that “sure, maybe” means “no.”  If they can’t join you, go anyway. At least you won’t be staying in waiting for them to make plans with you, and it will help you have a fun social life while you figure out San Francisco’s secret code for how to hang out.

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29 comments
  1. Holly said:

    Looking at the typical back-and-forth e-mail, it seems like most of that could be saved by making a simple phone call. Same with text messages. When my friends text me with unspecific information, I usually just call them so we can sort it out in a few minutes rather than over the course of a couple of days. Seems like that can work universally, whether in San Francisco or abroad.

    • This is what drives me crazy about email: people using a technology capable of sending a million bits per second to send a single bit of information, i.e. answering one yes/no question. Then waiting hundreds of seconds for the next bit.

      Speech at least gets you about ten bits per second.

    • wondering said:

      Ah, so you can get your friends off the phone with no hard feelings in ten minutes or so after you’ve addressed the thing you are calling about. That’s great.

      No can do. You get some of my friends on the phone and you just lost 2 hours of your time. You can say, hey, I have to make this quick and get off the phone as soon as you have the info you needed, but then there is pouting and hurt feelings. Email is one hundred times easier – then I can deal with the question on my own time and when I feel like dealing with the wall of text. Sometimes I even just skip the wall of text to zero in on the answer to the question I asked. I can usually get it sorted in a couple of emails, which is way less painful than a phone call. But I do go in with a fairly specific question, like “hey want to do X on the weekend? I’m free Sat afternoon and all day Sunday. What time and date work for you?”

      • JenniferP said:

        I’m a phone-dreader, too. Email (but specific, comprehensive email) to the rescue.

      • Well, maybe this is why I don’t have a ton of friends, but to me this just seems like elementary boundaries. You are, after all, calling specifically to arrange to see them and talk to them in person. I don’t mind catching up and nattering and all that, but if I gotta go, I just say I gotta go, see you there, and laters.

        Maybe they want to share all their news on the phone so that later, when we’re actually physically present, they can ignore us while texting or calling other people? I used to know someone like that.

  2. k said:

    Yesssss. This is one of those things where back-and-forth communication methods like texting and email will only get you caught in an endless loop of asking questions, waiting for answers, totally forgetting to answer someone’s text / email for hours or days, etc. Unless you are dealing with seriously shy individuals who hate talking on the phone more than anything in the world, just give ‘em a call and hash out the plans in real time.

    I usually try to lead with a specific suggestion of some activity we could do, and a few times I would be available (“Want to go out for coffee? I’d be free on Friday or Sunday afternoon.” or: “Want to go to this specific movie? Are you at your computer? I’ll email you the showtimes and we can pick one out right now.”

    One thing I find mass emailing or texting to be useful for, is if you are like, “Hey! I was thinking I’d like to have a potluck picnic in Telegraph Park! I’ll be there at x time on x day. Feel free to come by and please let me know if you’re planning on bringing something to eat. BYOB”. Depending on the flakey or depressive factor going on here, the people you know in San Francisco might still need a follow-up call to ensure that they know this event is actually happening and that you actually would love to see them there. If I plan an event this way I always figure, who gives a shit if 3 or 10 or 20 people show up? Even if I write an email saying, “Hey, there’s live music at XYZ Bar and I’m planning on going, I’d love for you guys to join me” and I end up there alone, it’s just not a major loss that nobody had time to come with me. I am still at a bar with beer and music.

  3. robiewankenobie said:

    gawd almighty. the evite email loop. kill me now.

  4. FarmerStina said:

    I have lived in Portland, OR and I now live in Seattle, WA. There is a total passive aggressiveness on the West Coast, and also an anti-social element. “Let’s get together soon” does not actually mean let’s do something in the near future. It’s a social nicety. And I confess to using it occasionally with people who annoy me, but with whom I need to remain on friendly terms. Everything Captain Awkward said is good advice, but expect some blank stares and some odd looks when you invite some of us out to do something. Sorry!

    • k said:

      I am from the West Coast actually! And my strategy of low-pressure group invites to which people are welcome to bring a friend or two, was forged in that type of environment.

    • Christen said:

      I don’t know if it’s a West Coast Thing or not. I’ve lived in Portland for about six years and I’ve found that people are generally incredibly friendly and generous about inviting new acquaintances to parties, out to do stuff, etc. I had more friends within a few weeks of living here than some folks I know did after years of living in Seattle. YMMV, Shelbyville sucks, etc. etc. Point being, “Let’s get together sometime” isn’t necessarily meaningless. At least here in Portland, some people seem very geared toward spontaneous hanging out and not at all great at making social plans in advance. Which can be fun, or incredibly frustrating depending on how flexible you are orcan be. There are people I just don’t see any more because my “Hey, thanks for the text, I’d love to grab a pint but I’m in the middle of something else right now, are you free next Tuesday?” texts go unanswered, and that just does not work for me, even though I really like some of those folks.

      The thing I’ve heard from friends who’ve lived in the Bay Area is that, because of the cost of living and the way things are laid out there, you will either spend a lot of time commuting to your job or a lot of time commuting to your social life. So suggesting specific activities in advance is a good idea. The LW is asking about reaching out to specific acquaintances, but I also hope he or she is looking for other ways to make new friends, like interest-based Meetups, book groups, etc. Just as there’s no reason not to go to cool stuff alone if no one you know will join you, there is no reason not to branch out to other people if the social network you have already is not working out.

      • you will either spend a lot of time commuting to your job or a lot of time commuting to your social life.

        Also, Muni sucks and the city is hilly. The commute is something to keep in mind when inviting people to cool outings, or even to hang out. I’ve skipped parties in the past because it would’ve taken 45 minutes to get there and at least an hour to get back, and I’ve also been more successful in hanging out with friends when I suggest something that’s centrally located and splits the commuting burden equally. The Mission is often a good choice, because it’s connected by bart and bus to the suburbs and most of the neighborhoods in SF.

  5. karinacinerina said:

    Oh my god – I live further down the West Coast in a predictably shallow and self-involved part of the world. And people here are awful! I have restarted social groups twice here due to the intense navel-gazing and iPhone lovemaking that makes folks impossible to connect to.

    I tried to have a girl’s night. I said, “Be at place at time on date for wooo!” at a bar that required reservations a week in advance (true, my first mistake) and two days before: “Oh, I never got back to you, is that still happening?” or “can so & so come?” So I turn up for my six person reservation anxious that I might have to squeeze 8 people into it, and then only four people show up, all late (45 min to an hour!). I hate ordering without folks, but I felt weird holding down an 8-top without at least a drink in my hand so I got started. Alone. On a Saturday night. In my finery. 45 minutes to an hour after the start time (happy hour ending in 30 minutes) I text the two no-shows who I have not heard from since their “yeah I’m THERE!” texts the day before – one is at a funeral and the other is “sick, but I am trying to get over it so I can make it.”
    One: you know about a funeral more than 2 hours ahead of time. TEXT ME you’re not coming.
    Two: You are sick all day, just text me and tell me you’re sick. Don’t tell me right before the evening is over that you’re trying to make it.
    Short version: People are busy, people aren’t responsive, people suck. Enjoy the people who show up and forget about the flakes who don’t. Invite them but don’t depend on them. Spread your nets wide – one of my attendees was a long-shot new acquaintance and I was so glad to have her there even though she barely knew me and knew none of the other folks, but it paid off later with future outings.

  6. L. said:

    I live in San Francisco and have for years (I’m 33), and am from California. So I speak Californian and know both what it is to be new and how it feels for new people to try to befriend me.

    I only hear this flake complaint (and I hear it *a lot*) from fairly recent transplants and people who have no developed social circle for whatever reason. They are never from California. I had a fairly developed circle in the area when I moved back five years ago from having spent college and grad school nearby. I have never, ever heard someone from California complain about this, or anyone who’d known the people in question for more than a year. I have thought about this a lot and if I may add my 4 cents:

    (1) I think making friends in San Francisco *when you are a new* is a lot like dating online. There are a lot of people trying to make friends, and just because you like someone, you may not be their favorite, or they are trying to meet a bunch of new people because they are new as well, and you end up having the same situation you do dating online of “well, he’s nice enough, but I think I’d rather save my Saturday night for this other person who seemed like he might be more my style.” There is a lot of trial and error amongst new people when both parties are new to town. Just because you are sure you want to hang out with someone new, they may not be a good fit. I’ve definitely hung out with people when I was new to the city limits who it turned out were nice enough and we had an okay time, but when I said “yes, let’s do this again sometime” I later did not actually want to spend the time when it came down to it, because they just weren’t right for me, even if I liked them.

    (2) If you are talking to established people, we all have a metric ton of friends and people go out a lot (or have a lot of time commitments), so time is a very scarce resource. We may really like you and honestly mean it when we say “Yes! Let’s see that exhibit together!” And then we have 15 other things to do in the next 14 days and we legitimately cannot find time for new friendships.

    (3) Maybe this is a California thing, but even when new in town, I never, ever assume I have or will have plans when I get the “yeah, sure, let’s get a drink sometime” response to asking a new potential friend out. All that answer means is “I wouldn’t punch you in the face over cocktails.” People say “let’s get together sometime” and reply positively to the suggestion only as a threshold level of “you are cool with me.” Just because someone here says “yeah, totally, let’s get a drink sometime,” or even “this weekend” you do not have plans with them until a time is established. I do not consider SF to be flaky at all- I have never been flaked out on by someone I made plans with for a friend date. This is probably because I know whether or not I actually have a friend date. Time and place means plans and therefore you can be flaked on. No time, no place- no plans exist and you cannot be flaked on. You may just not be getting worked in.

    (4) People come from the places they lived forever (or college) and expect to have the same level of commitment from new people they like as real friends. Friends take time. People in Boston or rural Tennessee, or wherever you consider home aren’t the only ones capable of real friendship, they just are already YOUR friends, so you don’t have to do anything further to get time commitments from them. They already care about you. That doesn’t make the California folks flakes, it makes the new-in-town people the new kid in school. Put in your time, understand that not everyone will want to be your BFF, and you will eventually find your people. The LW says people are not connected to each other. This is not true. They just aren’t connect to YOU yet.

    • Christen said:

      Minor quibble – I think the LW meant the acquaintances he or she has in SF don’t know each other/that he or she knows them through different sets of connections, not that San Franciscans are less connected to each other in general than people in other places. I agree with the rest of this wholeheartedly, however.

    • JenniferP said:

      Really great points. I think any time I’ve moved to a big city as an adult (so there’s no automatic college bonding) it’s taken between 6 months and a year to start making *real* friends and really break through. People are busy, and they already HAVE friends they don’t see enough, and you have to try to schedule stuff in a way that is easy for them.

    • Kathleen said:

      “If you are talking to established people, we all have a metric ton of friends and people go out a lot (or have a lot of time commitments), so time is a very scarce resource. We may really like you and honestly mean it when we say “Yes! Let’s see that exhibit together!” And then we have 15 other things to do in the next 14 days and we legitimately cannot find time for new friendships.”

      Hear hear!

      I live in San Francisco, and I meet people I’d love to spend more time with all the time, however, I have a serious yoga practice, a full-time job with requisite networking social commitments, a freelance practice with networking requirements, a boyfriend with extensive social commitments, my university alumni group, and then there’s my knitting group, book club, and just things and people I want to see, and my first fully free weekend is the second week of November.

      I think the easiest way to make friends in this city is to join a club or become a regular at a bar or coffee shop.

      • and my first fully free weekend is the second week of November.

        Ha, my calendar looks like that, too, and I consider myself an *introvert*. Lots of my friends are introverts, too–but somehow we end up busy anyway.

      • er, hit post too early. A friend of a friend moved to the Bay Area last year, and we keep trying to hang out, but invariably things end up not working out–she suggests brunch, I’m running a race that day. I suggest dinner, she’s working that night. She throws a party in the East Bay, my sibling’s visiting and I’m at the family homestead. And so on. People have prior commitments because they’re busy doing interesting things–it’s part of what makes them interesting to hang out with. I have faith that one of these days we’ll be able to meet up and catch up, though; the key is making it clear that we’re genuinely busy and not using excuses to avoid each other, and keep trying if you both want to meet up.

    • Anna said:

      Word. Especially true on the “lot of new people to meet” tip. The op said it herself, SF is a city where a lot of people end up. It’s also a city that a lot of people leave after a relatively short stay. That doesn’t breed a quick-to-make-besties mentality.

    • Stephanie said:

      Regardless of what the LW meant, WORD UP ON NUMBER FOUR. We had some friends move into town, and I heard this complaint from her a lot. I’m sure I even got to be the butt of it, because in reality she just wasn’t the right fit for me (so I guess WORD UP ON NUMBER ONE ALSO) and I really didn’t care to hang with her that often.

  7. Spike said:

    I have an old, good high school friend that I’d semi-regularly be trying to make plans with to keep our friendship going – fun things involving leaving the house. She would always be down for the plans but then when the time came she’d always flake out. I finally figured out that, despite her best intentions, when not working, her favourite thing to do was sit on her couch, smoke and drink beers. And that would always win out. Once I adjusted my expectations it became much easier to plan to meet (on her couch, lol). Maybe you should try to make sure you’re suggesting activities that some of these introverted people would be less likely to need to use up a lot of mental or physical energy to partake in. I mean, I’d rather go out and do something fun with my friend, but spending time with her is my main goal and I achieved that.

  8. Blythe said:

    I have moved a few times to friendless locations at about your age (both coasts). Here’s how I made friends. It took 6 to 18 months, and there were ups and downs, as several of my new best friends moved away within a year (so sad).

    1) Get set up by friends. Do you have a friend who has a friend in the Bay Area? If yes, maybe you can be introduced. I got “adopted” by a friend-of-a -friend in my current city, and that led to making other friends. They made the effort to include me as a nice thing to do for our mutual friend. Since they were leading the plans, there was no flakiness. I then made good friends with an unrelated friend-of-a-friend who moved a year after me.

    2) Join (or create) a club. About a year into moving to my city, I realized I had random friends who did not know each other, but no group. I founded a cooking club with another isolated newcomer, and I got asked to join a book club. Both meet monthly. Both clubs seek out ladies who are new to the city. As people move away, we look for new arrivals to join. Friendships were formed, some very close and deep. A plus- If there is a monthly meeting, people won’t flake out.

    3) Socializing at work can be easy cuz everyone is trapped there all day anyway. Having lunch can lead to discussion of plans. Not sure if that fits everyone’s work situation, but it’s easy to scope out potential friends this way. I ended up being a bridesmaid for a colleague I met at work after just 2 years- we spent so much time at work, on break, that we got close.

    4) Going on a trip- If you go on a trip with someone you are more likely to become better friends with them. A friend gave me this tip and it works!

    5) Laid back plans can be easier to arrange last minute and provide better bonding. E.g., iniviting someone over for dnner or a movie; going for a walk or for ice cream. Less overwhelming than a whole night out that needs tickets, parking, reservations.

    All the Captain’s suggestions and insights are awesome, and I appreciated the part about the annoying email planning. I think I see friends less often than I could because meshing schedules over email is so aversive. I will be taking some of her advice.

  9. Xenu01 said:

    Ha! I am a Philly-Oakland (and before that, Maryland!) relative newbie, and things mostly work for me out here because I am married and working and in school and volunteering and also an introvert so time is a really valuable resource and I am totally down with people who don’t think you are terrible!!! because you haven’t seen them in a while.

    I like to start with the place and then create an event. There’s that arcade museum up at Fisherman’s Wharf, and they are open late, and it’s not too expensive- all you need is a bunch of quarters- and if everyone flakes, you still get to watch all the creepy animated executions, etc. There’s also a pinball museum in Alameda, open on Saturday and Sundays, which would make a fun centerpoint. And of course, Thai Brunch (Berkeley) is my all-time favorite low-pressure come-on-out event- it’s inexpensive, right by Ashby BART (and the weekend flea market!) and if no one shows up, you still get yummy food!

    Now, as an East-Bayer, MY big gripe is how to make all those San Francisco jerks come out to Oakland. There is stuff here! For serious! Ya’all have to get out here sometime.

  10. karinacinerina said:

    For context: I have been on the West Coast for 11 years and came from my born-and-raised for 30 yrs including college town. Even being here for a decade and having established friends and circles and options has not reduced the flake factor by a hair. And, to be fair, I and others are flaked out on by California natives and transplants alike.
    Making new friends after the natural attrition of old friends (even in a new city) is hard but worth the effort. Clubs, classes, conventions (think nerd-cons or writer-oriented gatherings), meet-up.com, OKCupid, and volunteering is all fun and gets you out of the house and into the presence of people you might not meet otherwise, but share your passions.
    Adulthood is demanding and tiring, and the people who really want your company will make it happen.

    • amockingbird said:

      Also been on the West Coast for 11 years, and I am flaked on by natives and non as well. Having set plans, or even tickets, does not stop a flaker. Texting me at the time you are supposed to be meeting me in line for the concert that you aren’t coming because you don’t feel well, really? And going to fun things alone is all well and good, but 1) this town seems oddly reticent about talking to strangers, and 2) being a woman alone at a bar on a weekend night can be awkward. I grew up in the south, I can talk to a tree. At said concert I tried multiple times to strike up conversations with people around me and filled ten minutes, tops. I’m an only child, I live by myself, I am the queen of being happy alone. But talking to people can be nice.

      I’ve found an organization I believe in and support, and volunteer with them doing something almost every week. I meet some amazing people, and even if I don’t and am just making conversation during downtime, I’m doing it while doing something I enjoy and believe in so I still have fun.

  11. Dorothy said:

    I agree with karinacinerina who said that “the people who really want your company will make it happen.” That is absolutely true, and it does no good to try and force a friendship. Just take people’s lack of enthusiasm, or flakiness, in getting together with you as a hint and move on. A lot of people spread themselves so thin in social activities and obligations that, even though they may want to see you, they have a lot of other commitments as well. They say yes and then realize that they’re tired and stressed, or something else has come up that they’ve forgotten about, then cancel out at the last minute. These types of people may or may not work out for friendship later, but it’s best to not depend on them and to find other people to get together with in the meantime.

    There are a ton of clubs in San Francisco, and joining a club will put you in touch with like-minded people. Making friends at work can be a dicey situation. Sometimes a friendship/love interest doesn’t work out, and it’s difficult to keep seeing that person day after day. In this economy, you can’t easily quit the job for the most part. Ditto with trying to make friends at the condo building you’re living in, if that’s the case. Although you may make a quick friend, if it doesn’t turn out, It’s difficult to avoid that person in such close quarters. My suggestion would be to have your fellow workers and condo neighbors as acquaintances, in order to keep the peace, and to seek out friends at clubs, classes, etc., in subjects you’re interested in pursuing.

    If someone isn’t responding to your efforts at getting together or seems flaky, it’s best to search for people who honor commitments and who are enthusiastic about meeting you for dinner, etc. You’ll know who those people are because they’ll want to set up a time and date to get together and will actually show up on time, or nearly so, or will call you in advance to tell you they can’t make it, so you’re not left hanging. In other words, they’re sensitive to your feelings and will make every effort to reciprocate in kind.

  12. Dorothy said:

    Oh, and to add to my last comment, learning to enjoy being alone is one of the best tools a person can have in this life. Hobbies are ALWAYS available, and if you’re feeling depressed, having something at home that you enjoy doing and that challenges you, while at the same time being relaxing for you – learning to play the piano, building something, reading, learning a new language through Rosetta Stone or whatever, etc., will give you something to fall back on as well as be something to be proud of having learned.

  13. Dan said:

    Hey,

    I’m trying to move here from the midwest for a place and a job, and the flake factor is no joke, lol. I understand people have many obligations and busy lives, plus many personal options for who their good friends can be, but this is definitely a different culture to get into, and yes, natives and transplants alike can be nice, but not truly friendly. I do like the points that were made on this forum by people from here and not, and I’m just trying to learn from it, but part me wonders if I have to become a flaker just to get into this society, no offense to anyone. I’m stilly going to try though! ;-)

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