The making of a good excuse

09 July 2019

Interview with 

Paulina Sliwa, University of Cambridge

SORRY

a purple pencil writing the word "sorry" on paper

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We’re all guilty of making up excuses; “Sorry, there was traffic”, “I couldn't come to work because I accidentally got on a plane…”, Or, as one person told the UK Tax Office, “My ex-wife left my tax return upstairs, but I suffer from vertigo and can’t go to retrieve it.” Clearly, some excuses more plausible than others. But do they really work? And what makes some excuses better than others. Paulina Sliwa is researching excuses at the University of Cambridge and she joined Chris Smith in the studio...

Paulina - I got interested in excuses because they're absolutely everywhere. It's something that we come across in our daily life all the time. But then they also come up in the courtroom, for example, where lawyers evaluate excuses and there are valid excuses that you can make in the course of a criminal inquiry.

Chris - And what's the best one you've come across? As in, the best...perhaps the lamest excuse?

Paulina - Oh, the lamest one, particularly when teaching undergraduates, is, “sorry, I forgot to attach my essay.”

Chris - That's classic, yeah. “The email must have gone missing.” Everyone blames the technology, and yeah, that's pretty that's pretty common, I must admit. So how are you actually going about studying this, then? What's the actual methodology?

Paulina - Right. So I am a philosopher, and of course philosophers’ laboratories tend to be armchairs in general, but we draw on a whole range of methods. Ordinary speech, you know, how we speak about a particular phenomenon, how we make excuses, how we respond to excuses. A little bit of linguistics as well. And then also psychology is important.

Chris - And what are you...are you just gathering examples of people making excuses, and then looking at the context to try to understand, why do people make excuses in what sorts of settings?

Paulina - What originally started interesting me is just: what the various different kinds of considerations that we appeal to - from a headache, to provocation - what they have in common.

Chris - What do you think people resort to excuses? Why are we not just honest and say, “look I'm really sorry, I'm just lazy”? Or, “I'm really sorry, but I had a better offer. I went to the pub, I didn't do my homework.”

Paulina - Well I think it's important to distinguish two things, right: having excuses, and making excuses. So very often we do genuinely have an excuse; we failed to do something, but there is a consideration that mitigates our blame for it.

Chris - Is this almost like the, sort of, the verbal equivalent of haggling, then? You know, I want to buy something for X, and you want me to pay Y, and we kind of meet in the middle where I make an excuse for what I have done or haven't done, and that's kind of middle ground?

Paulina - Yeah that's right. So, you know, when we when we fail to live up to our obligation, in general it means that we incur some other obligation. So now I owe an apology, or I owe an explanation, or I might owe you a drink or some other kinds of compensation...

Chris - So reciprocity.

Paulina - Reciprocity, yeah. So part of what happens when you're making an excuse, I think, is you're trying to negotiate just what the fallout is from your norm violation, or your failed obligation. You're trying to negotiate just how much of an apology you owe, and what kind of apology it really is.

Chris - And some people are obviously better at that than others. But have you come across a formula, then, almost, for what constitutes a good excuse? So if I want to make an excuse for something, and I want it to actually sound pretty plausible and actually have the consequence I intend, which is people will forgive me or let me off for whatever I’ve failed to deliver on; is there a recipe for success in this?

Paulina - There is. The devil lies in the detail. So a good excuse acknowledges that things went wrong. You didn't act as you should have done.

Chris - So I’ve got to hold my hands up first of all, “I'm sorry”. So a bit of an apology, and then a, “I'm sorry, I should have done X,” so I acknowledge the issue…

Paulina - You acknowledge the issue...

Chris - What comes next?

Paulina - And then you say, “but, the intention on which I acted,” where intention is something like your plan for action, “that one was morally adequate.” And the reason why it failed to work was because of some unforeseen circumstances, something beyond your control

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