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At 10.52pm on a recent Tuesday, Andy Cohen was preparing to host his week night talk show on Bravo, Watch What Happens Live, when a text message arrived.

Though the 20-seat studio has a month-long waiting list, he had set aside two tickets for a friend. The friend was cancelling just minutes before going live.

“It didn’t happen," the friend wrote. “Dinner going long."

At 9am the other Monday, Paul Wilmot, a public relations executive in New York, US, was meeting a colleague at Cafe Cluny in the West Village. After he waited for a half-hour, an email arrived from his breakfast date, saying he was on his way.

Not long before that, Leandra Medine, the 23-year-old fashion blogger behind Man Repeller, sat down at the SoHo restaurant Jack’s Wife Freda and waited for her three friends. As she nursed a glass of wine, she glanced down at her phone to learn, via text, that all of her friends had bailed.

Random missed connections? Not quite.

Texting and instant messaging make it easier to navigate our social lives, but they are also turning us into ill-mannered flakes. Not long ago, the only way to break a social engagement, outside of blowing off someone completely, was to do it in person or on the phone. An effusive apology was expected, or at least the appearance of contrition.

But now, when our fingers tap our way out of social obligations, the barriers to cancelling have been lowered. Not feeling up to going out? Have better plans? Just type a note on the fly (“Sorry can't make it tonight") and hit send.

And don’t worry about giving advance notice. The later, the better. After all, bailing on dinner via text message doesn’t feel as disrespectful as standing up someone, or as embarrassing.

“Texting is lazy, and it encourages and promotes flakiness," Cohen says. “You’re not treating anything with any weight, and it turns us all into 14-year-olds. We’re all 14-year-olds in suits and high heels."

Not that he is above it, either.

“I’m a victim of it, and I do it, too," he says.

Digital flakiness seems to apply equally to last-minute plans and engagements booked way in advance. Ashley Wick, the founder of Wick Communications, a firm based in New York, organized an intimate dinner this fall to introduce a designer she represents to about 10 editors. Invitations were sent out two weeks earlier, but that afternoon almost half of the confirmed attendees cancelled via email.

“Offline rules of etiquette no longer seem to apply," Wick says. “People hide behind email or text messages to cancel appointments, or do things that feel uncomfortable to do in person."

The face-to-face consequences of being a flake have all but disappeared. If the unpleasantness of having to disappoint a host or dinner date was one reason commitments were honoured in the past, technology has rendered that moot.

Adding to the guilt-free cancelling is the assumption that we’re glued to our smartphones, which means that people often wait till the last moment to send regrets.

“They’ll automatically think I’ve seen it because they sent it," says Jason Binn, the founder of DuJour magazine, who keeps his 139,000-plus Twitter followers abreast of his celebrity tête-à-tête at Michael’s and elsewhere. “People cancel meetings or change plans by shooting me a text, an email, even a tweet."

Sociologists have coined a term for these freewheeling, mobile-lubricated social interactions: micro-coordination. The term was created by Richard Ling, a professor of communication at the IT University of Copenhagen.

Before cellphones, he says, people made plans based on prearranged times and places, whereas now we can micro-coordinate, or adjust plans according to real-time events, be it a traffic jam or
a late night at the office.

“The mobile phone has made that kind of coordination much more nuanced," Ling says. “We might have three or four different things going on at once, and one thing might fall apart, or another thing might come through, so there’s a basic indeterminacy we live with now."

While it may offend etiquette experts, micro-coordination does offer certain benefits. “Most people celebrate the ability to change plans or fluidly manage plans," says Scott Campbell, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, who specializes in mobile technology. “We don’t have to pick a place, or even a time. We can just make it happen in real time."

Even old-school sticklers for protocol relish the freedom that micro-coordination provides. Wilmot, the publicist, may not appreciate a last-minute cancellation via text, but he does make plans that way.

“With texting, you don’t have to go through a whole salutation like on the phone," he says. “My rule is, when it comes to making plans electronically, you can make ’em, but you can’t break ’em."

© 2012/The New York Times

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

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