Flakiness as a cultural phenomenon

I was talking the other day with a friend about how in the US, “we should get coffee sometime” is BS-speak. If someone says this to you, there is a 10% chance at most that they will actually follow up to schedule that coffee. And if you are the one who reaches out, naively thinking that coffee will happen, there’s a 70% chance that they’ll either stop responding or agree to a time, then abruptly cancel a few hours before without attempting to reschedule.

I lived in DC for six years, over half of my twenties. And the people I’ve met in DC are the flakiest, most unreliable people I’ve met anywhere. Once, I organized a dinner for 4 people; the other 3 all texted to cancel the hour before dinner started, citing busy work schedules or migraines. I’ve quietly ended a friendship because they were impossible to schedule time with, often cancelling our plans with little notice and taking weeks to respond to simple texts.

A few months ago, I was reflecting on how if I went back to DC to visit, I wouldn’t know whom to call up. There are two or three people that I’d try to at least set up a lunch with — mostly mentors — but other than that, everyone who was in my life pre-2019 has faded away. At first, when I expatriated, I tried to keep up with friends via WhatsApp. But soon, there was nothing to talk about anymore, and the responses stopped coming.

You could chalk that up to DC being a transient city. A place that people moved to for work and then left when their ambitions took them elsewhere. But when I came to Geneva, which is, on paper, remarkably similar — a center of international diplomacy, a salad of cultures, a hub for highly educated professionals — my experiences with people were surprisingly different.

A couple of vignettes to illustrate my point:

  • I recently organized a Chinese hotpot dinner for 12 people at a local restaurant. I made the reservation and sent out the invite 2 weeks in advance. When it came to the night of the dinner, only 1 person ended up not making it, as they were trying to get to Paris the next day, and their train had been cancelled due to the strikes.
  • I used to host a monthly meetup for strangers in Geneva. It’s common that only 30 to 50% of those who RSVP yes to an event will actually show up. But before every event, I’d receive a burst of emails from literal strangers — who had no obligation to attend this free event — apologizing that they could no longer make it. I never replied, but I was always surprised. People actually do this?
  • A friend, A, had invited me and another friend, B, to come hang out at their house on Sunday afternoon. The night before, A had gotten completely wasted at the club and was in poor shape the following day (they hadn’t even changed out of the clubbing outfit). Instead of cancelling, they insisted that we still come over. We spent a lovely afternoon chatting in the backyard and playing with B’s toddlers while A lay comatose in a lawn chair, wearing sunglasses.
  • A friendly colleague, C, offhandedly mentioned that his wife, D, worked at an interesting organization. “That’s awesome,” I said. “I’d love to apply for a job there one day.” C offered to put us in touch and sent an introductory email; then, before I’d even had the chance to write to D, C messaged me to let me know that D’s father had suddenly passed away, so it was no longer a good time. I expressed my condolences and forgot all about it. A few months later, D was the one who reached back out to me, saying that it was now a good time to connect. We had coffee, and she was lovely.

In Geneva, when I make plans with someone, there is only a 10% chance that it’ll get cancelled. It doesn’t matter if we set up something two or three weeks in advance; the general assumption is that people have complete control over their calendars and plan their lives accordingly.

So why this cultural disparity? I don’t think it’s something that’s unique to Swiss people, first of all. Most of my friends here are fellow foreigners, mostly from other European countries and Canada. But I will posit that “Swiss culture”, however stereotypical, might have an effect here. Generally speaking, people in Switzerland value rules, commitment, and punctuality. If you don’t put your waste into the right bin, you’ll get a fine. If the plumber says he’s coming at 11, then he’s going to be here at 11. If it rains, the parade still goes on, and everyone puts on a raincoat. So perhaps some of that has rubbed off — the sense of obligation, the importance of sticking true to your word.

Is it that people in DC are just more superficial? DC certainly has a reputation for attracting highly ambitious, career-minded people. In my early twenties, I went to a lot of professional networking events; I eventually gathered that as a young person in a low-paid nonprofit job, with no money or connections, I had nothing to offer anyone, and that these events were a waste of my time and naive earnestness. But even in my personal life, I came to understand how much people valued (or didn’t value) my company. I was dropped by close friends who found romantic partners and disappeared into their couple cocoons. Most people I met didn’t want to hang out, and even when they did, it was always so ephemeral, noncommittal. We should get lunch sometime. Let’s play it by ear. So swamped with work right now!

Another theory I have is… loneliness. I have met many strikingly lonely people in Geneva. People who are married, who have families, who have lived here for their whole lives… it doesn’t matter. Every time I hosted one of my monthly meetups, I was touched by the deep and palpable sadness that radiated from the strangers who showed up. (It’s one of the reasons I want to train as a counsellor, in fact.) Which makes me wonder if that’s part of why people keep showing up, to my events and to one-on-one hangouts with me — the desire to be not alone. The desire to connect with another human.

After almost four years here, it’s clear that I jibe more with the value that people place on honoring commitments and building friendships in Switzerland — and I’ve had enough life experience to appreciate them more, too.

That said, living in DC for so many years has left me a bit cynical. If a friend falls out of touch, I’m not surprised or hurt anymore; I just wish them well. And outside my existing friends, I very rarely ask an acquaintance to go get lunch or coffee together. It’s almost as if in my head, I’m saying, you go first. Show me that you’re someone who can plan something and show up to it. I don’t have an overflowing rolodex of friends, but the ones that I have, we’ve got each other’s backs.

Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

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