Any Lame Excuse
Traffic jam on the highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco: surface repairs. I spent thirty minutes slowly battling my way through until the chaos was a distant scene in my rearview mirror. Or so I thought. Half an hour later, I was again bumper to bumper: more maintenance work. Strangely enough, my level of frustration was much lower this time. Why? Reassuringly cheerful signs along the road announced: “We’re renovating the highway for you!”
The jam reminded me of an experiment conducted by the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer in the 1970s. For this, she went into a library and waited at a photocopier until a line had formed. Then she approached the first in line and said: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Her success rate was 60 percent. She repeated the experiment, this time giving a reason: “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” In almost all cases (94 percent), she was allowed to go ahead. This is understandable: If people are in a hurry, you often let them cut in to the front of the line. She tried yet another approach, this time saying: “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I go before you because I have to make some copies?” The result was amazing: Even though the pretext was (a-hem) paper-thin—after all, everyone was standing in line to make copies—she was allowed to pass to the front of the line in almost all cases (93 percent).
When you justify your behavior, you encounter more tolerance and helpfulness. It seems to matter very little if your excuse is good or not. Using the simple validation “because” is sufficient. A sign proclaiming: “We’re renovating the highway for you” is completely redundant. What else would a maintenance crew be up to on a highway? If you hadn’t noticed before, you realize what is going on once you look out the window. And yet this knowledge reassures and calms you. After all, nothing is more frustrating than being kept in the dark.
Gate A57 at JFK airport, waiting to board: An announcement comes over the loudspeaker: “Attention, passengers. Flight 1234 is delayed by three hours.” Wonderful. I walked to the desk to find out why. And came back no more enlightened. I was furious: How dare they leave us waiting in ignorance? Other airlines have the decency to announce: “Flight 5678 is delayed by three hours due to operational reasons.” A throwaway reason if ever there was one, but enough to appease passengers.
It seems people are addicted to the word “because”—so much so that we use it even when it’s not necessary. If you are a leader, undoubtedly you have witnessed this. If you provide no rallying call, employee motivation dwindles. It simply doesn’t make the grade to say that the purpose of your shoe company is to manufacture footwear. No, today, higher purposes and the story behind the story are all-important, such as: “We want our shoes to revolutionize the market” (whatever that means). “Better arch support for a better world!” (whatever that means). Zappo’s claims that it is in the happiness business (whatever that means).
If the stock market rises or falls by half a percent, you will never hear the true cause from stock market commentators—that it is white noise, the culmination of an infinite number of market movements. No: People want a palpable reason, and the commentator is happy to select one. Whatever explanation he utters will be meaningless—with frequent blame applied to the pronouncements of Federal Reserve Bank presidents.
If someone asks why you have yet to complete a task, it’s best to say: “Because I haven’t got around to it yet.” It’s a pathetic excuse (had you done so, the conversation wouldn’t be taking place), but it usually does the trick without the need to scramble for more plausible reasons.
One day I watched my wife carefully separating black laundry from blue. As far as I know, this effort isn’t necessary. Both are dark colors, right? Such logic has managed to keep my clothes run-free for many years. “Why do you do that?” I asked. “Because I prefer to wash them separately.” For me, a perfectly fine answer.
Never leave home without “because.” This unassuming little word greases the wheels of human interaction. Use it unrestrainedly.