Advertisement

COMMITMENTS : The Flake Factor : You know them, you love them, you may even be one of them. They’re the people who cannot keep a commitment. But maybe it’s not their fault. Our culture may be the culprit.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

How many flakes in a 24-ounce box of Corn Flakes? About 6,300.

How many human-type flakes in American society? Experts have no statistical data, but all agree that people are definitely getting flakier.

A flake cannot keep a commitment, no matter what. Your friend promises to help you find an apartment, but never seems to find the time. Your date says he’ll call before the weekend, but doesn’t quite manage to. You schedule lunch with a co-worker, but some other obligation comes up at the last minute--again.

Always an excuse.

Advertisement

Sometimes an apology.

Fostering this flakiness, experts say, is a culture that favors factoids over useful facts. A mind jammed with factoids makes it difficult for a person to focus, set goals and keep track of time, says Dr. Richard M. Restak, a neurologist and author of several books on the brain, most recently “The Modular Brain: How New Discoveries in Neuroscience Are Answering Age-Old Questions About Memory, Free Will, Consciousness and Personal Identity” (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994).

The burgeoning of easy-to-access information, particularly factoids, Restak says, has numbed our collective mind. Unlike facts, factoids require no analysis, reasoning or understanding. Factoids are often preferable to the intellectual perplexities (health-care reform, genetic engineering) confounding most people.

“This is a society that glorifies--and overloads on--factoids,” Restak says, “the nibbits of nothing, the junk food of information, the McDonald’s of knowledge.”

Advertisement

Included under the factoid umbrella, experts say, are such mind-dazing (if popular) activities as bugging out in front of the tube, absorbing nonsensical lyrics (think Violent Femmes) or delving into forums on the Internet (members of alt.fan.super-big-gulp recently devoted hours to planning a Gulp-a-Thon-of-the-Gods and debating the use of straws--big, small or none).

This “silliness” becomes more important than honor and personal integrity, says Timothy Miller, a clinical psychologist in Stockton. As more people succumb to meaningless priorities, “it becomes more socially and morally acceptable to not keep your word and to be rude, annoying and offensive. . . . That’s why society is seeing flakes, flakes and more flakes.”

*

Of course, there are other reasons for being flaky, experts say. People are too tired and too busy. They work longer hours, a reward for being spared in company layoffs. They worry about money and family and all their loved ones who have problems with money or family.

These factors can compel even the most responsible person to zone out and lapse into a factoid state of mind, Miller says.

“It becomes a way for people to avoid their stress, fears and feelings, especially painful feelings,” he says.

Thinking about the causes of flakiness would make Jennifer Munoz “more flaky.” The 24-year-old Las Vegas receptionist half-jokingly defines a flake as “someone like me . . . sometimes I have too much to think about that I forget to think (about responsibilities).”

But, in all seriousness, Munoz admits that she frequently has trouble with punctuality or relaying phone messages and has missed more than one recent lunch date.

Advertisement

That sort of thing sounds familiar to Susie Hale, 33, a self-described Los Angeles flake who despises flakiness.

“My relationships with friends suffer because of flakiness,” she says. “I don’t mean to be rude by flaking out, and I’m sure my friends don’t either, but it causes a lot of hurt feelings. The bad thing is that when I’m the flake and I know I’ve upset someone, I just get even flakier.”

The same thing happens to an acquaintance of hers. Despite immediate commitments, she has been known to veg in her bed for hours, or count advertisements in a magazine, or lazily muse about doing the hokey-pokey (You stick your right foot in. . . .) .

A couple decades ago, flakes could get away with such behavior without seeming flaky, says Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist, author and professor emeritus at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

“Used to be you’d have to wind clocks and watches. They all used to be off,” he says. “Now (computer) chips keep accurate time. There’s no more excuse, as in ‘My watch stopped.’

“Flakes,” he adds, “are usually inconsiderate and self-centered.”

*

But some who exhibit flake-like tendencies aren’t really flakes, says Lindy Hays, who has worked with foreign students for 15 years and teaches intercultural communication classes at Cal State L.A. Instead, they may be members of different cultures trying to survive in a salad-bowl region like Southern California.

Advertisement

For instance, Hays takes no offense when a Japanese student says “maybe” he can complete a project by Saturday and doesn’t--a flaky move by Western standards.

“The Japanese often say maybe to be polite,” considering a flat-out “No” to be rude, she says. The inquirer is supposed to know this, interpreting the maybe as no .

“What one culture thinks is polite, another considers rude,” Hays says, citing a decade-old study that found that Americans, Germans and Swiss are more punctual than Asian and Latin American cultures. “But (the study) is a generalization, which means people will always deviate from it. Those that do are seen as flaky.”

In “The Givers and the Takers: Unravel the Mysteries of Romantic Attraction for a Happier, More Satisfying Relationship” (Macmillan, 1984), authors Bruce Feld and Cris Evatt molded personalities into two types: the givers (non-flakes) and takers (flakes).

Feld explains that the same person can be a giver and a taker in different settings, such as in the home or office. People are classified by the type that dominates their personality.

A survey of 1,000 couples in the Bay Area showed that 90% of the women were givers, and 90% of the men takers, Feld says. In relationships, particularly marriage, one type usually seeks the other. It balances.

When both have the same personality types, Feld says flakiness can flourish.

Curiously, an unscientific phone survey of more than 20 people nationwide who have the last name Flake revealed that none of them have major problems with flaky people. Sure, there’s an occasional late date, or a co-worker who ditches responsibilities.

But most Flakes won’t tolerate flakes, says Tim Flake, a 30-year-old accountant from Manhattan Beach.

“If someone is flaky you lose trust, and that’s it,” he says. “No more flake.”


Advertisement