Most English speakers are familiar with the saying that goes something like this, “Excuses are like assholes: everybody’s got one and they all smell like shit.” I don’t know about you, but the sentiment behind that fragrant phrase never quite seemed to connect with me.
Part of the problem I have with it is the fact that I just don’t like big old blanket statements. Almost nothing is a simple matter of black or white: the human experience is just way too complicated to assume that any given behavior is flawed in every given context. Is there really no situation in which an excuse is justifiable? I mean, come on. There are times when crap just happens that throws off your ability to accomplish whatever the hell it is that you set out to do, or would like to see done. It’s just humanly impossible to prepare for every eventuality. But that doesn’t stop us from thinking that everybody EXCEPT US should be able to do just that.
The classic example of the above phenomenon is the tendency for the masses to attribute a bad economic climate to the president. Of course, anyone who bothered to pay attention during the first week of undergrad macroeconomics knows that this makes about as much sense as blaming an overgrown rodent for an extra long winter. Matter of fact, you don’t even need any undergraduate credits to realize that our economy is a massive, tremendously unwieldy beast that we can only hope to contain and never control…kinda like drunk, white lacrosse players at an Asian sorority’s toga party. Yeah, you lost your job, which sucks, but the president couldn’t help you even if she wanted to. (Note: If she’s Republican, she doesn’t want to.) In fact, my main issue with our hatred for excuses lies within that example of public ignorance regarding presidential impotence.
Things don’t always work out, despite our best laid plans. We’ve all been there. We’re all familiar with the accompanying feelings of disappointment. So, where’s the empathy?
Psychologists have named this gap between our ability to enumerate the myriad reasons why we failed to accomplish a task, down to the minutest detail, while simultaneously being unable to comprehend why our “lazy” or “idiotic” or “irresponsible” colleague “dropped the ball”. They call it the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). In short, it means that we’re really good at understanding why things go wrong for us, but are equally lousy when it comes to appreciating the snags that others encounter. (I think that this is just a specific instance of our outlandishly selfish natures, but that’s a topic for another day.)
By the way, the implications of FAE reach far beyond you being a jerk to your direct report when that TPS report doesn’t get filed on time. It operates on a grand scale, too. Fill in the blank: “Those damn ____. They’re so lazy. That’s why they never get ahead.” Sound familiar?
In the end, it might behoove us all to spend a bit more time thinking about the many obstacles that can disrupt our flow. Remember the sick person that delays the train and makes you late for a meeting. Recall the horrible sound system that totally killed your opening night performance. Reminisce about the condom that broke and forced you into a shotgun wedding with last summer’s booty call. Recollect that until 1965 (little more than a decade before I was fucking BORN), you might not have been able to vote if you were a descendant of slaves. Perhaps then we’d show a little more understanding for each other, stop being so self-centered, and get our heads out of our asses…unless we’re looking for an excuse.