Most of us can identify with this: we're all set to meet with friends, but something comes up at the last minute and we're stuck at the office, or real life gets in the way, suddenly making last week's dinner plans no longer work with your schedule. Odds are, you feel guilty canceling (no one likes failing to keep plans), but your previous plans are simply no longer workable. When this happens, how can you cancel plans without being rude?
Depending on why you're canceling your plans, you have a few options. Feel free to pick and choose from the following tactics based on what's most applicable to your situation.
If you have an iron-clad reason for canceling — say, a family emergency or a work obligation — citing that is a no-brainer. Going into excruciating detail isn't needed (unless you want to share), either: a simple "I'm sorry, but [explain the situation] so I can't make this" will do. If your situation allows, this is a great segue into proposing an alternative plan (see below for how to do this).
If you aren't canceling your plans out of disinterest in seeing the person you were scheduled to see, proactively propose a new plan. A simple "can we do [X] at [Y] time instead?" will do in this case. If the plan you're canceling is a meal, it's easy enough to even propose the same time and place on another date.
It's a safe assumption that your friends are just as busy as you are, and that making plans with you entails not making plans with other people during the scheduled time. With this in mind, canceling plans as soon as you know you won't be able to make them allows the person you're canceling with to make new plans with someone else. The most last-minute your cancellation is, the harder is it for the other person to make alternate plans, so cancel with early warning whenever possible!
If you're canceling because you're simply not in the mood to hang out or feeling burnt out, it's okay to admit that (or at least, it should be okay to admit it in a healthy friendship). Being upfront with the person you're canceling plans with will hopefully be appreciated and soften the blow of the cancellation itself.
It should go without saying, but being appropriately apologetic goes a long way when canceling plans. You want the other person to know you genuinely want to see them and that you're sad the plan won't work out — so say as much.
When the plan you have to cancel is a professional, rather than personal, commitment, the stakes are higher. Obviously, you want to maintain your professional reputation and avoid burning bridges. In these cases, it'll help to keep the following tips in mind:
Generally speaking, you're probably looking to cancel professional obligations due to other professional obligations getting in the way. In these cases, explaining what's going on and asking to schedule due to your schedule/deadline/whatever else is going on is your best move. Sending an email or calling the person you're scheduled to meet with to 1) apologize for having to reschedule, 2) explain why you have to reschedule and 3) offer the broadest-possible availability for an alternate meeting date is called for in these cases.
This is bound to happen to most of us at some point over the course of our professional lives: you said yes to meeting someone who contacted you to network with you, agreed to speak to a friend of a friend who wants to learn about your industry or were contacted by a student from your alma mater who's interested in an internship at your company. You tried to respond to their questions via email but wound up saying yes to an in-person meeting that doesn't fit into your schedule. If you decide that taking the meeting doesn't make sense given your other obligations, saying as much to the other person is your best bet. While it may be uncomfortable to do so, being honest with the other person is preferable to either 1) rescheduling indefinitely only to blow them off in the end or 2) dragging yourself to a meeting you don't want to attend. In cases like this, send an email explaining that you're unable to meet due to scheduling constraints and offer to continue the conversation via email.
If the plan you're backing out of is an event, you may be tempted to simply not show up. However, it's worth keeping in mind that industry circles are often small; so for the sake of your professional reputation, you should try to inform the event organizers that you won't be able to make the event after all. If there's an online RSVP, changing your "yes" to a "decline" and adding a note about how you're sorry to back out at the last minute, but something's come up and you'd like to be kept in the loop about future events is perfect. If there's a contact person you've been in touch with about the event, such as an event organizer or PR rep, sending them an email telling them you can't make the event, thanking them for the invite and asking to be invited to a future event is appropriate.
Even armed with good ways to cancel plans, it's good to keep in mind that it isn't always acceptable to cancel plans. If your cancellation is super last minute — for example, if the other person is already en route — it's not okay to cancel your plans. If you're needed to fulfill a specific responsibility at an event, it's unacceptable to bail, because you're letting someone (or multiple someones) down in that case. Finally, if the other person has money on the line — such as traveling for the sake of your meeting — it's really best not to cancel the plan after they've already spent money to travel to meet you.
If you find yourself in the position of needing to cancel a doctor's appointment or something similar, calling the office to cancel is your best bet. Ideally, you'll be able to reschedule at the same time — but if your schedule is up in the air, telling them you'll call back at a later date to reschedule works.
Follow the best practices for rescheduling professional obligations in general, explain the reason for the reschedule, and propose a new time.
The bad news is that it's very difficult to stop a date without it being at least a little uncomfortable. The good news is that you can at least dismiss yourself with a minimum of fuss. If you're getting drinks, simply not ordering a second drink is a good way to segue to dismissing yourself. Alternatively, making up an excuse (such as an early morning meeting) that allows you to claim an early night is a decent move. Finally, for the brave among us, simply telling your date that you're ready to head home and that it doesn't seem like a great match is honest and, assuming everyone is an adult about it, refreshingly honest.