“I’m Old, You Know.” Since the time I invented that acronym, I have learned that it also can man “if only you knew.” There are lots of circumstances in which this particular excuse is more or less appropriate, but I am going to consider its overuse. But first, let’s clear out some of the underbrush.

“Reasons” and “Excuses”

IOYK 2For reasons I can no longer recall, a big distinction was made, where I grew up, between “a reason for something” and an “excuse.” By usage, I learned that a reason you gave for something was one or the other. I never heard anyone say that a reason was so inadequate that it could not serve as an excuse or that a reason was so compelling that it did serve as an excuse. The old usage is still in place, I notice.

“…I’ve heard an incredible number of reasons why restaurant owner’s businesses are struggling or failing. 99 out of 100 times, that “reason” really isn’t a reason at all, it’s an “excuse”. There’s a big difference, and I’ll tell you what it is. [1]

If “excuse” is the reason why the discussion is being pursued [2], then some reasons are good enough to achieve it and others are not. “I’m sorry I was late for dinner. I had a heart attack on the way home and the hospital wanted to keep me overnight for observation.” I like that one. “I’m sorry I was late. The #8 bus was late getting to my stop and the traffic was unusually heavy.” I don’t like that one so much, particularly when it is delivered by someone who is frequently late and always has a low grade reason for it. So, you know, take an earlier bus.

Use and Overuse

“Old” isn’t much of an excuse all by itself. It is the practical implications of “old” that provide the utility. “Old and therefore forgetful” for example “excuses” the failure to write down an appointment. “Old and therefore frail” excuses attending a party that will require standing for long periods of time and also excuses being part of the moving crew summoned to help a downsizing friend. [3] “Old and therefore frequently ill” excuses commitment to long range plans.

When you begin with IOYK, those are the gains that the excuses buy you. But what does it cost you to buy those benefits? What is the cost to you?

We tend to look at the effect of the excuses we offer. That seems a reasonable thing to do. IOYK 5For one thing, the IOYK excuse functions as a kind of euphemism. It is a socially acceptable reason where “the real reason” might not be so acceptable. If there are parties you don’t want to go to or projects that aren’t really worth doing or jobs you would rather leave for someone else, saying those things in those ways will get you into trouble. Or reasons for not texting an “old person.”  Using IOYK will not. People accept it more or less at face value and don’t take it personally.

So it takes real discipline to keep from overusing it.

But I think there are good reasons for trying not to overuse it. First of all, while we are attending to the effect of the excuse on others, we are not noticing the effect of the excuse on ourselves. It is the premise, the hard to notice foundation of the excuse, that causes us all the difficulty. The overuse of this particular excuse requires that we present ourselves as old more than is strictly necessary. The network of implications we have devised—old and therefore frail, for instance, or old and therefore forgetful—acts just the same way on us as it does on them.

It does. Jonathan Haidt says is a line that made me decide to buy his book [4], “I then lied so quickly and convincingly that my wife and I both believed me.” It forms connections in our minds. We now think of ourselves as “old” more than we would have otherwise and while it is true that we are old, it is also true that we are active, inquisitive, empathetic, and capable of sustained action should the occasion require.

All these things may be true of us and calling our own attention disproportionately to the one that provides the best excuses will weaken us in the long run.

IOYK 3And not only that, but the people to whom this reason is presented and who accept it as legitimate—they accept it, that is, as an excuse—will also learn the broader premise we are using. “He thinks of himself as old” our friends will learn to say, “…and so he would probably not like to be invited to the party or told about the project.” And, of course, our friends talk to each other too, so this assessment of what we might respond to spreads across our friendship network, with the result that many invitations may simply be not offered. “He always says No,” our friends will say as they consult each other, “and he will say he is too old.”

Inculpation [5]

Dr. Shaun Murphy, the principal character in ABC’s The Good Doctor, is autistic and in a recent episode, he encountered his first autistic patient. A rich and complex story ensues, but at the end, the autistic doctor has this word of advice for his autistic patient, “You need to make more mistakes.” That is what backing away from the overuse of IOYK will mean for us.

If we focus the appropriate attention of the whole range of our traits—not only old, but also, as in the series above, “active, inquisitive, empathetic, and capable of sustained action”—then we will be more overtly interested in more things. That means we will not over-learn the one premise we are using—IOYK—and will, instead keep the whole series alive in our minds and in the minds of our friends.

It does seem a shame to give up on an excuse that works so well, but when we think about what it costs us, maybe using it a little less would be a good idea.

[1] I got this familiar treatment from Brandon O’Dell, a restaurant consultant.
[2] I would prefer “exculpation” myself. The root, culpa is a Latin word meaning fault or blame. The prefix ex- gives us “out of” or “away from.” So an exculpatory reason is one that takes away the blame. That seems clearer to me.
[3] Not Matt Damon, who downsized not only his character, but also himself in his recent movie, Downsizing. Someone else.
[4] The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. See page 54.
[5] One of the many good reasons for using words like “exculpation” is that is makes it possible to flip over to “inculpation” when the time comes. The relationship between inculpation and exculpation is completely transparent.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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