The Difference Between A Reason And An Excuse

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“I can’t fucking stand people who don’t know the difference between a ‘reason’ and an ‘excuse,’” says redditor raspberrykoolaid, talking about those repugnant people who can’t sympathise with any problem they haven’t faced themselves, and think that everyone else is just offering excuses. You don’t want to be one of those people. But you also don’t want to be a sniveling disappointment. Your whole life will improve when you can tell a reason from an excuse.

By “excuse” I mean a bad excuse, a rationalisation put forward to avoid blame or effort. And by “reason” I mean an explanation that adequately addresses the other party’s objections. They’re both used to justify a behaviour, but only the latter really does so.

We all offer excuses sometimes, to save face or try to get out of trouble, or because we really don’t want to do the work to solve a problem. But we also offer reasons, because we are not omnipotent, and sometimes others ask more of us than we can provide.

If you look at reasons and think they’re excuses, you end up blaming people too much, and expecting too much of them. You might, for example:

  • Be a dick to a service employee

  • Think oppression doesn’t exist, because you didn’t face it or you found a personal solution

  • Beat yourself up about even the smallest mistake, because you always compare yourself to perfection

  • “Disrupt” an industry with a heavily-funded startup, use your short-term cash flow to threaten businesses that prioritise longterm sustainability, and watch it all crash down as you learn why “the old way” was the right way

  • Give terrible advice

If you look at excuses and think they’re reasons, you might:

  • Be constantly late

  • Let people treat you like shit

  • Spend years in an unfulfilling relationship with a partner who never makes you feel special, because they’re too busy with everything in their lives except you, while all your friends gossip about it behind your back

  • Get scammed

  • Get fired

There’s no easy trick to telling an excuse from a reason. They’re not sharply defined, and what’s an excuse in one situation is a solid reason in another. But whenever you’re trying to tell a reason from an excuse, do this:

  • Do your research: If you don’t understand the first reason you receive, dig deeper. Ask “why” five times.

  • Assume good faith from the other party until it’s necessary to do otherwise. This gives you room to change your mind, and leaves them room to change theirs.

  • Think about why someone offered you an excuse. Sometimes you’ll see their real goal—like trying to save face—and you can help them do that while still getting what you need from them.

  • Look for opposing motivations, ones that make the parties disagree on whether a certain demand is reasonable. Look for shared motivations that supersede the opposing ones, and see if you can reframe the situation in terms of those motivations.

  • Revisit your assumptions regularly. Check with people with different experiences than yours whether your assumptions still hold. Be ready to learn, not to defend your previous position.

The process works both ways, because you apply it to your own side as well as the other party’s side. Say your boss isn’t listening to your valid reasons for missing a deadline. Ask “why” about your reasons, and you might find that you can overcome them by addressing the root problem. But also think about reasons your boss might not understand your reasons—whether they’re not considering your workload, or if they simply felt the need to assert power. You might need to update them on your other work, or find a way to make them feel in charge while still giving you more time. This entire process works the same if you’re the boss, and you think your employee is being lazy.

If you consistently see the same person being demanding or lazy, or you see a large group of people as demanding or lazy, then you need to use these strategies. Sometimes it turns out you’re right—capitalism runs on bosses being overly demanding, and extracting the value of your surplus labour! And sometimes you’re wrong—like someone who thinks homeless people should just “get a job.”

You can’t definitively prove the difference between a reason and an excuse. (If someone could do that, there’d be no such thing as competition or missed opportunities.) But if you practice examining the difference, you’ll get along with people better, get what you want more often, and even set better expectations for yourself. And you won’t inspire entire Reddit threads about how you’re a dick.


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