Reasons or Excuses

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When something goes wrong we quickly build ourselves a narrative about it. The story we tell ourselves isn’t objective, and often doesn’t even mesh with reality in more than a cursory way. Let a little time pass and that story becomes the totality of the event. It includes our interpretation of the circumstances, rationalizations for what we did, how we perceive others behaved or reacted, etc. We develop for ourselves a reason that satisfies our need to make sense of it.

Reasons or excuses? What are they, and what differentiates these emotionally loaded terms? Culturally, reasons feel to us like valid explanations, whereas excuses feel invalid and lacking in accountability.

Let me give you some examples. Common excuses for why restaurants, or other businesses, fail include:

  • Our purveyors were cheating us
  • Our concept was too progressive for the market
  • The market didn’t appreciate good food
  • Our landlord was unreasonable

The list is much longer than these few highlights. There are as many excuses for failure as there are failed businesses. If a person were to take accountability for their decisions and their actions, those excuses could be seen as the real reasons for failure, and they would look more like this:

  • We didn’t know anything about negotiating purchasing, and ended up paying prices we couldn’t afford to pay
  • We didn’t research our market well enough to find out what the market wanted, so we ended up giving them what OUR idea of good food was, not theirs
  • We failed to communicate what made us special compared to the competion, and the market didn’t respond  – or – We didn’t realize that our market doesn’t have the same ability to notice quality that we have, and we were really banking on them realizing our food was better
  • We didn’t negotiate a good lease – or –  we didn’t learn enough about leases going in to be able to effectively negotiate a favorable one

Recognizing the lack of accountability in the first set relative to the second is the easy part. Culturally, we seem to lump excuses into a morally questionable realm, almost as if they are lies. Excuse, by definition, connotes an attempt or request to not be held accountable.

“I was late for class because I was held up by a train.” Assuming the statement is truthful, is it an excuse or a reason? As a statement of fact, it fits with being a reason. If there is an implied request to not be penalized in some way, then it starts to feel like an excuse. The moral attitude (with its limitations) starts to surface here: you should leave in time to allow for being held up by a train. Of course, what if the person did, but the train was unusually long? We don’t have to go far down these technical rabbit holes to see that the language and implied meaning can be broken. Suffice to say that they are contextual and judged in the perception of the speaker and hearer, who are not always on the same page because communicating the nuances thoroughly can be difficult and time consuming, not to mention emotionally taxing under some circumstances. Sometimes one party just doesn’t care enough to worry about it.

“I can’t.”  As I have written before, this is often code for, “I don’t want to enough.” Again, the easy ones are statements such as, “I can’t seem to lose weight,” or “I can’t make it to your important event.” The former feels like an excuse, even though we know there can be very valid reasons. The latter feels like it probably has a reason behind it. Thus is how culture and context drives meaning. The trickiness of the second example is often in the desire not to hurt people’s feelings. We dance around and make excuses, when the cold, hard truth probably is, “I don’t care enough about your event to miss out on the other thing I have to do.” Now it sounds even more like a reason (though not very tactful).

There are some things we simply can’t do in life, but most are choices we make.

“I can’t go out with you because I am already dating someone.” Most would be satisfied that this sounds like a reason, but is its really? The word “can’t” adds a weird layer of a lack of accountability, and therefor moves the statement toward feeling like an excuse, even if it’s deemed to be a valid one.

“I do not want to go out with you because I am already dating someone.” That’s closer to owning the accountability of it.

“I don’t want to go out with you because I believe that the risk of hurting the relationship I am in outweighs what I assess to be a very small chance I would be happier with you.” Or, “I don’t want to go out with you because I don’t feel attracted enough to break a date with this other person I like.”

Do you feel how these are getting uncomfortable? Excuses are often an (empty) attempt to keep comfort in tact by avoiding accountability. Reasons cut to the real truth of the matter.

It could also simply be, “I do not want to go out with you.” Sometimes what gets us into trouble is trying to provide a reason, and usually the reason is where it starts to feel like, and often is, an excuse.

Oh, but there is more.

Truth and trust become important currency when you’re in some type of valued relationship with someone. It’s easy to find ourselves caught between two valid concerns:

  1. I want and need to be honest with this person because…
    •  It seems like the ‘right’ thing to do
    • I want to maintain an assessment of trust;
      • It makes me feel good
      • I hope they will respond in kind
    • I believe it is in their best interest to know the truth
  2. I want to be dishonest with this person because…
    • I want them to feel validated, or not be hurt
    • I want to maintain the good feelings we have between us
    • I want to avoid conflict
    • I don’t want them to negatively assess me (as being rude or insensitive, a jerk, an idiot, etc.)
    • I believe it is in their best interest not to know the truth

You’ll decide to lean more toward one than the other, as conflicted of a choice as it may be. We can weigh it all out and try to do the least worst thing, but so much of what we often choose to do really boils down to our own comfort and desire to be liked.

An additional complexity of either of them is that sometimes the hearer just doesn’t buy it, and will believe you are operating in #2 whether you are or not. Now the speaker has lost the assessment of trust, the hearer is hurt, there are bad feelings, and potentially bad characterizations. Thus is the risk of the dishonest route, or is one of the nasty consequences of a weakness in trust and/or a weakness in the hearer’s self-esteem. It could also just be a misunderstanding or faulty assumption on the part of the hearer. In either case, now the tables are turned (insert dramatic music here). Now it is the hearer who must decide between #1 and #2. He can call out his concern to the speaker, or he can move along quietly with the bad feelings. Let it go, or ferret the truth out of it? Tough choice with the same pitfalls.

So this just turned into a post about how vital communication is between people who care about each other. It’s about how we have to accept the flaws in communication, the mistakes we make, and to a degree even the flaws in each other that lead to these mistakes. We need to give the other person grace, to empathize with how difficult it can be to parse through it all to find the right balance on the continuum between brutal honesty and smarmy validation, or between letting the other person save face versus the value of holding them accountable, all in the unavoidable context of our own comfort.

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