When the angry professor questioned my friend, why he had not worn the mandatory dull grey shirt and the uglier trousers (called the “lab uniform”) for the Electronics Laboratory class that day, I sensed we were going to witness an embarrassing conversation. We had seen and heard many different excuses tried out by others, with limited success, only to be subjected to further probing and public demeaning.

I vaguely remember my friend’s reply now, after so many years. The truthful, detailed account that stumped everyone – and certainly convinced the professor who had no further questions.

What about situations where we are not under pressure ?

For instance, it is easy for me to respond a simple question from my colleague, “How was your weekend?” with an answer “Great!” – which is good enough for a coffee-corner chat. But if I really care to give a proper response, a truthful reflection on that question might reveal some finer (and boring) details about my life – how I struggled to finish grocery shopping in time, having gotten up too late on that Saturday morning and the fact that I simply did “nothing” on Sunday – lazing around, watching a stupid movie. I might realise, I need to do something worthwhile during weekends in order to offer a better response. But the other day, when I narrated to my colleague exactly those trivial things I did on the weekend, he simply loved it – especially the “doing nothing” bit. A more meaningful chat ensued, about how our lives are never free of responsibilities and that it is not feasible to “do nothing” unless we manage to stop the passage of time.

A true answer or an excuse sounds weird but it can work sometimes. That’s my interpretation of the famous Copy Machine Study, where a student is asked to jump the queue of people waiting to get their turn to use a copy machine. In the first experiment, he is asked to tell the first person, “Excuse me, may I use the machine?”. No reasons to be given. In the next experiment, he expands, “Excuse me, may I use the machine, because I’m in a rush?”. In the third experiment, he is asked to state, “Excuse me, may I use the machine, because I want to make copies?”. Guess which version had the most success rate (in terms of being allowed to skip the queue). While the second one was the most successful, the third version had almost an equal amount of success. Due to the magic word “because”, as Robert Cialdini explains, “…when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.”

I too was once looking for a strong reason; to apply leave and travel back home from the onsite location as my family, especially my daughter was missing me a lot during those four months. Phone calls every night usually ended with my daughter wondering, when I would be back. It was a tough call to make for me: on the one hand, my whole team was toiling away; as a project lead, I could not be seen retreating until we got the job done. On the other hand, well, my daughter was missing me. It became easier however, on a particular day when she went to bed early and conveyed through her mom that she is all ok and cheerful and she understood that dad would be away for a long time.

I flew back home that very weekend, having provided a stronger reason for the two-weeks leave request which was approved promptly: my daughter was no longer missing me.

The next time you are asked for a reason or when you are about to offer an excuse, try looking for the flash of truth.

PS: This was my friend’s reply to the professor as far as I can remember. “I had given the clothes for ironing to the dhobi (washerman) last weekend and when I went to collect them yesterday, I found his shop closed and I learnt that he has gone on a pilgrimage only to return after three days.”