Thursday, November 01, 2007

Reflections on the Third Time Meta-Obligation

Channelling Miss Manners today. (I've actually met Miss Manners, but that's a story for another day...)

The hecticness of life feeds on itself. With so much going on and so much to do coming from every direction, too often we have to pass on things we really want to do. Sometimes the social world lines up in such a way that conflicts force you say, "Wish I could, but I just can't" to an invitation from a friend. A while later, the friend invites you again. "Cool, this'll be fun," you think to yourself, then checking your calendar, you think, "Shit!" and explain in as regretful a tone as possible that you do really want to go, but you have something that you are committed to that just can't be moved. And with the explanation comes a sense of foreboding because you know there will be a third invitation to do something in the months to come and that third invitation will be different, it is no longer just an invitation, it is an obligation. No matter how silly or trivial the day's activity, you will have to rearrange and reschedule, move things seemingly much bigger out of the way because you CAN'T say no again.

The fact is, you really like this person, enjoy his or her company, and all other things being equal would have much preferred to have accepted all three invitations. But you couldn't and now, backing out on this one would not just be backing out. One is just the reality of a busy life, two is an unfortunate coincidence, three is a pattern. After three excuses, no matter how valid, no matter how substantiated, that third "sorry" in a row sends a message that you don't mean to be sent, that you don't want to spend time with them, that they are not important enough to fit into your life, that they are unacceptably low on your list of personal priorities. The first two are about your schedule, but the third one is about your relationship.

The third invitation, even if it is no so intended, is a meta-invitation and it comes with a different level of obligation. The question now is not merely "do you want to go do this?" but becomes interpretable as "aren't we friends?"

One interesting exception to this scenario, however. If between the first and the third invitation, you've extended an invitation to them, the point becomes moot. By showing that you're also making an effort to spend time together, you've undermined the concern that you are avoiding them even if, indeed especially if, they had to bail on your suggestion. At that point, the inability to find a mutually open spot on the calendar becomes an inside joke.

Is there another way to handle the third time meta-obligation?