How to make a good excuse and how to sell it
We’ve all been there – something came up, we lost interest, we said something rude in the heat of the moment – and now we need to offer an excuse to extricate ourselves from an unwanted situation or to soothe someone’s hurt feelings.
There’s a million and one excuses out there, everything from being tired, stressed out, getting stuck traffic, our kids, family matters, or a migraine headache. Lots are run-of-the-mill generic excuses, while others can be a bit more creative and tailored to meet the needs of a current situation. The differences between excuses might seem large but the intentions remain the same – to get us out of a jam.
The act of making excuses happens all the time as people attempt to explain their actions or behaviours, escape consequences and take the sting out of undesirable social behaviour.
Why we make excuses
Excuses are largely used to help us mitigate or avoid repercussions when we’ve made a mistake. This could include times when we were late for work, missed an appointment, needed to cancel dinner plans, forgot an anniversary, or when we need to take the sting of something nasty we said to someone while we were angry. To this end, excuses are mostly selfish (because they save us blushes), but they can also be used to spare someone’s feelings or make amends after a fight.
When we mess up, an excuse is usually expected, and even permissible in many circumstances, because they help show that even though we acted inappropriately, our underlying intentions were reasonable. Once our good intentions are expressed, and the excuse we’ve used makes sense in context, then we can hope to have averted a potentially tricky situation.
Making excuses could almost be considered a part of human nature – for better or worse. As such, excuses are typically expected from us when we break plans, arrive late or offend someone, and not making one is often seen as more of a social faux-pas than our initial offence. This doesn’t mean we should throw accountability right out the window, because respecting people’s plans and time is important, but if we slip up then having a worthy excuse is a must.
So, what is a good excuse?
In a basic way, most excuses will have two main things in common – our good intentions and plausibility.
The first quality of a good excuse is qualifying the action plan. That means when we make an excuse, we’re essentially portraying that the intent of our plan was fine, but something unexpected went wrong when we put it into action. In other words, we tried but an event out of our control interceded and wrecked our plan.
The second half of a good excuse works to qualify and make it seem plausible, meaning there is an understandable reason for the situation.
To go one step further in coming up with the perfect excuse, we’ll need to add a third element to the mix – verifiability. That is to say, can we offer evidence or corroboration that what we’ve said is true if someone isn’t taking us at our word. It’s important to note that this isn’t always possible, especially if an excuse needs to be offered on the spot, so coming up with something that is difficult to verify is always the best.
Check out this excuse example; “I’m sorry I forgot about our appointment. I had an awful migraine and haven’t slept properly the last few nights.”
This excuse works because; it shows we intended to make the appointment, a migraine is a plausible reason for why you forgot, it’s not easily verified, and it also puts an onus of sympathy on the offended party.
When we make excuses, we’re essentially trying to negotiate our way out of blame, anger, resentment, and of course, any resulting punishment. This is the big reason why we make excuses in the first place, and also why being on the receiving end of an excuse can be frustrating.
Checklist for elements of a good excuse:
- Demonstrates our good intentions
- Offers a plausible reason why we failed
- Is verifiable, or unverifiable (depending on the situation)
- Prompts the offended party to feel sympathy or understanding with our situation
- Helps the party we’ve offended feel better about the situation
- Does all of the above while not leaving the door open for potential issues for us later on (requiring us to backtrack on the excuse we made)
What makes a bad excuse?
Generally, bad excuses are ones that don’t demonstrate our good intentions, aren’t plausible, can be easily debunked and don’t work to make the offended party feel better. In other words, bad excuses are the ones that don’t get us out of hot water and leave everyone upset – plain and simple.
Sometimes a bad excuse isn’t as easily spotted though, and more so comes down to if it could paint us into a corner later down the road. This could happen if we forget making the excuse and get caught in a lie, or the given excuse hinders us from doing something later on. For example, if we used an excuse like “the car broke down”, but then something comes up where we need said car, we could be in a bit of a pickle if we get found out.
Most excuses have limits
Even a successful excuse doesn’t get us off the hook completely, but it does alter others’ perception of how they should feel about the situation, or what compensation they would like to see from us to make things right. No matter what though, even the best excuse isn’t fool proof, and we can still land in hot water for our actions.
Excuses are also a bit of a can-of-worms that we need to be careful opening. Far fetched, easily verifiable or repeated excuses aren’t recommended because the offended party might not believe us, can easily find out we’ve lied, or may stop caring about what we say if they keep getting excuses from us for our actions. Getting caught in a lie is usually the least desirable outcome of an excuse delivery because it not only makes the situation worse, it also ends up with us gaining a reputation for being the “King of excuses”, or “the boy who cried wolf”, which can be quite detrimental going forward. That’s why excuses should be saved only for situations where they are absolutely necessary or for when they will have the most impact.
How to come up with a good excuse
So, taking into account the three pillars of a good excuse, let’s look at how to come up with a believable excuse.
Step One: Make an excuse plan
Drawing up a plan for our excuse is always the first step, because an excuse that isn’t thought out could have holes and might not work. That means we’ll need to hash out the general idea before delivering the excuse.
A good place to start is thinking about any questions that could be asked (verification questions if you will) and making sure we have reasonable answers ready. This not only makes the excuse more trustworthy, but it will help give us the confidence to deliver it convincingly. Knowing all the connected elements of our excuse ahead of time will allow for quick reactions to changing circumstances.
Step Two: Make the excuse realistic and creative
This might sound like we have two different aims, but it’s actually better to have an excuse that doesn’t sound like an excuse – bear with us if that doesn’t make sense. Saying something like “your dog at your homework” will undoubtedly raise eyebrows because it’s so well known, and let’s be real, we can do better than that.
Be creative with the excuse but make sure it doesn’t sound ridiculous either because that will just make matters worse. If at all possible, we won’t choose an excuse we’ve used before.
Relating our excuse to something the offended party will be sympathetic to can help a great deal as well. For example, if speaking with someone who rides public transportation, then blaming our tardiness on a subway or train delay might make them more receptive of the excuse.
How to sell your excuse
Now that we’ve storyboarded our excuse, it’s time make sure we can sell it too. No matter how good the excuse is, if our overall delivery sucks then believability drops big time. That’s why we follow these steps to make sure our excuse is delivered convincingly.
Step One: Practice the delivery
As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect, and there’s no better time than when we need to deliver an important excuse. Running through what we’re going to say, our rebuttals to any interjections, and how we plan to verify your statements is vital to the cause. Practicing will help us avoid errors, and it might even highlight some holes in our story that we can fill beforehand, instead of coming up with something that’s potentially damning on the spot. Knowing the excuse inside and out will give us the confidence we need to tell our white lie convincingly.
Step Two: Manner’s matter (a lot)
Remember, we’re the ones who are in the wrong so we better not come across as confrontational or rude. Instead, being courteous, humble and maybe even a little bit self-deprecating is recommended for the best results. We recommend maintaining quality eye contact, speaking in a regretful tone and generally being ready to take the blame.
Step Three: Be confident
As with many other interactions in life, how we present ourselves counts for a lot. If we’re stuttering, wringing our hands, not making eye contact etc., there is a lower chance that the person will believe any excuse we provide, let alone be sympathetic towards us.
It’s far better if to speak confidently, maybe even a little angrily at the bad luck which caused the screw-up, while making sure our posture is being held properly. Instead of darting our eyes evasively, fill them with sincerity and regret for having offended or wasted the other party’s time.
Step Four: Keep an ace up the sleeve
The proverbial ace up our sleeve can take many forms. It could be a friend to act as witness for the excuse, a screenshot on a phone or even a receipt for something related to the excuse. While these are all great tools in our excuse arsenal, we have to play this card correctly otherwise the whole thing could reek of fabrication, and we’ll likely end up falling flat.
Step Five: Be ready to adapt
Even though the plan is outlined, practiced, and we’ve enlisted some help, there are still things that could go wrong. Usually, things going wrong means the other party starts to really press on certain details or they don’t care about an excuse at all.
In this scenario, we’ll need to think quickly and come up with supporting stories to keep our excuse believable, or if we get the impression the other party just doesn’t give a @#$%, we might just be better off abandoning the excuse, admitting we were wrong and grovelling for leniency.
Step Six: Offer to make things right
People hear excuses all the time, and while excuses do offer a way out of feeling offended, that doesn’t mean they will erase all the harm that’s been done. For example, if a dinner date was missed, an apology and a reason why are almost always required, but to make us seem more sincere, we should also offer to make it up. Of course, this type of offer will change depending on the scenario, but for a missed dinner date, suggesting another evening for a get together in the future will do much more to ease hurt feelings than just simply providing an excuse.
Asking to make it up shows that we really wanted to be there, and we’re also upset that we missed out, so now we want to postpone things instead of blowing them off completely. Remember, it’s all about good intentions and cancelling is way worse than postponing.
What if you feel bad making excuses?
Making excuses isn’t fun no matter how emotionally tough we are, but for some people it’s downright nerve wracking. If an excuse is legitimate, like when the bus did actually break down, then there’s nothing to be concerned about, but when it’s necessary to deliver an excuse of the “made up or fabricated” variety, it involves being dishonest to some degree and that can suck. That’s when we need to take a minute and think about why we’re making the excuse and weigh our options.
Will the excuse spare someone else’s feelings? That’s usually a good reason and we shouldn’t feel too bad about that.
Did we really mess up and we’ll find ourselves in deep @#$% if we fess up to the real reason? In that case, it sounds like the moral infringement outweighs the deception and it’s probably a good idea to go for it.
Is the excuse being made to cover for someone else? That’s also acceptable in our book.
As a small caveat, excuses that we should avoid include those that involve throwing someone else under the bus (if they didn’t deserve it), and excuses that use morally questionable material, like saying grandma died (it’s pretty morbid). Stuff like that requires some pretty thick skin to pull it off and not feel awful about doing so.
Excuses aren’t all bad though, and it’s good to remember that excuses are usually offered to uphold the social fabric of relationships and are mainly akin to “little white lies” used to keep the peace. In other words, excuses are not the same thing as lies. That said, they do technically involve lying, but excuses usually aren’t really hurting anyone, and in fact, are more likely going to making someone feel better about the situation. Remember, excuses are very common and are pretty much expected in most situations.
If this article was helpful or you have something to say, please leave us a comment. Otherwise, check out some of our top excuse ideas you can use the next time you’re in a jam.