How to Build (and Spot) the Perfect Excuse

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No one can create bits — little repeating jokes threaded through raucous storytelling — like the comedian Eddie Izzard. His paralyzingly funny special Dress to Kill has more of these than you could count; one underrated bit goes as follows: "When we were kids, we lied our heads off! 'I didn't do it! I was dead at the time! I was on the moon! With Steve!'"

There's an art and a craft to creating excuses, whether they're funny or sneaky or utterly sincere. Now one philosopher at England's Cambridge University is starting to figure out why. The very short version, according to Paulina Swiva, is this: "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."

In essence, an excuse is most excusable when your intentions were good, even if your actions or their results aren't. You really meant well when you tried to fix the copier yourself or set your friend up with that lonely newcomer, but somewhere along the way, things got out of hand. There's a line between this behavior and what's more inexcusable, of course: Ethicists have created lists of self-justifications to watch out for. But most of all, it's what you do after your screw-up that counts.

Weird as it may sound, thinking about your mistakes can actually help you manage your stress. Whether you've messed up with your coworkers, your partner, or just yourself, figure out your best earnest apology and let yourself push on ahead.