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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.

March 27, 1995|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | 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.

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."

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."

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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.

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."

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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.

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 .

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