Recently, it occurred to me that teachers no longer hear the excuse “My dog ate my homework.” What they hear now is, “I don’t know what happened, but after I added more RAM and inserted the graphics card, 1 turned to say something to James and my hard drive crashed and erased everything!” 1 know they’re hearing that because the other day 1 heard it from my son, who had just come home from school without the history notes he’d dutifully taken in class. Or at least that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.
Actually, 1 do not doubt him. But the level of detail he provided—James, graphics card—reminded me of the excuses 1 make when something goes wrong. They are just as long and detailed, and sometimes I listen to myself as I make them and think, What an interesting story, why am I telling it?
Not too long ago 1 needed a few extra days to finish some work and asked for an extension on the deadline. Typical enough for a writer or anyone else, but instead of just saying, “I need more time,” 1 said, “I’m so sorry, but midnight Monday I had a computer problem, and then 1 got a pain in my jaw. So I took the computer to the shop and then went to the dentist, and he says 1 need emergency root canal. And you know, 1 said to both the computer guy and the dentist, ‘Why did this happen?’—actually to the dentist, with a rubber dam in my mouth, 1 said, ‘Wah dih dis hahpuh?’—and both of them leaned back and said in the same perplexed way: ‘I don’t know.’ And then 1 come home to a call that a close friend’s mother died. And then …”
Now, all these things happened. And anyone to whom they had happened would need an extension. What puzzles me is why 1 didn’t just say to my editor, “I’ll have it for you Thursday.” Why did 1 have to recite a whole drama?
And 1 know I’m not alone in doing the “If I Failed, It’s Because of Fate” thing. A lot of us believe we have to establish that only something really, really bad can keep us from coming through. But if we’ve been reliable in the past, why would we need to establish that? As for the story-telling part, I think we see it as one part the offering of evidence,• and one part sheer pleasure; we want to share a narrative—to make a connection and hear the other person say, “Oh no!” and “You’re kidding.”
That’s not a bad impulse. It’s better than the other excuse-making style—“If I Fail, It’s the Other Guy’s Fault.” You bring the car into a garage because it keeps breaking down. The mechanic pokes around and sees that the transmission is completely shot. He shakes his head and says, “The last guy who fixed this was an idiot.” Meaning: “I hate to tell you, but this is going to cost you a lot and I’m not sure I can do it right—but it’s not my fault; it’s the other guy’s.”
You hear it from plumbers: “He put in a plastic pipe?” means “You’ll be without a toilet for a week. Are you friendly with the neighbors?” Hairstylists do it too: “Oh, he cut it all wrong for your face!” Meaning, “You won’t look good when you leave here, but what do you want, you don’t have any hair.”
Perhaps this is just human nature. There’s a thing inside us that says that somehow our work won’t be recognized as good unless the other person’s is seen as wanting. (The author Gore Vidal touched on this when he said, “It’s not enough that I succeed—my friends must fail.”)
But both styles of excuse-making—”It’s Fate!” and “It’s His Fault!”—seem to me to be outer showings of an inner lack of faith in the fairness and generosity of the person to whom you’re making excuses. To say nothing of a lack of faith in yourself.
I know what I should do: Stand up straight, stop cringing, and say, “I’m not done, but I’m working hard and you’ll have it soon. I’m sorry.” And what the mechanic should say: “The car’s in bad shape, but I’ll do everything I can to get it running quickly.” We should take responsibility, and let someone else do the commentary.
In any case, finger-pointing doesn’t work. It won’t make people think you’re good at your job when you say it’s the other guy’s fault; it will make them wary of you. I know. Once, when I was criticizing someone, an old man I respect shared an observation with me. “When you point the finger,” he said, “there’s one finger pointing out and four fingers pointing back at you.”