Is There Any Such Thing As A Perfect Excuse?

Just in time for the bailing trend that seems to sweep through summer, a top academic has revealed to us all that she's discovered the way to wiggle out of anything. Here Hannah Betts says she has nothing to learn...

Perfect excuses

by Hannah Betts |

Last week, a Cambridge professor of philosophy announced that she’d cracked the perfect excuse: to cut any ice, it must be a combination of good intentions and circumstances beyond our control.

The public-spirited Dr Paulina Sliwa revealed: ‘A successful excuse needs to make plausible that your intention really was morally adequate, but something beyond your control prevented you from translating it into action.’ Accordingly, ‘I have a migraine,’ ‘I haven’t slept for three weeks,’ or ‘A meteorite just pulverised my boyfriend’ will be just the ticket. However, anything that implies: ‘I just couldn’t resist’ is a no-no; which explains why my decades of: ‘Sorry, I just scored some sex’ messages have never gone down well.

A few years ago, my appendix exploded – not a course of action I’d recommend. However, there was something rather liberating in realising that the workload I’d crawled into casualty with had been legitimately rendered redundant by the fact that I was teetering on the brink of death. Later, when my mother was dying, I was equally astounded that this wasn’t regarded as an exonerating factor. ‘What, still dying?’ inquired a boss, while a friend sent me a lengthy email about how I was failing to meet her needs. Needless to say, she’s not a friend any more.

Back when I was a (very) junior Oxford academic, I found myself on the receiving end of undergraduate excuses: a florid, literary sub-genre all of their own. Once, a now rather distinguished student came up with the perfect justification for not handing in her essay: the poor soul had had an abortion. My sympathy was boundless. Alas, she didn’t count on her tutors comparing notes. By the end of the eight-week term, she had numbered three such procedures, which seemed as unlikely as it was unfortunate. Still, top marks for girl-on-girl manipulation. Etiquette-wise, one must never, repeat never, proffer an excuse for upgrading to a better offer. Only an audience with the Queen would qualify, and Her Majesty has such impeccable manners that she always gives plenty of notice. I have a much sought-after friend who avoids this faux pas by never committing to anything. Instead, she cultivates an air of sustained ambiguity, deciding on her attendance minutes before setting off. One can only get away with such behaviour if one is seriously charming, and – even then – it palls.

Personally, I maintain a purist attitude that – with the individuals one truly adores – one never needs an excuse. This is not a ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry’ strategy, so much as ‘love means never having to come up with some cock-and-bull about a sudden work delegation from Siberia’. An ‘I’m just not feeling up to it’ should be enough, with both parties cutting each other mutual slack. This also functions as a sheep/goats policy: real friends will get it because they get you. And so, let us sally forth sans excuse, I say. (Unless, it’s my upcoming party, in which case, you’d better be there.)

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