One of these things is not like the other
December 6, 2013 4:45 AM   Subscribe

What is the difference between making excuses for someone's behavior and understanding where they are coming from? I don't have anything in particular in mind. I just see that phrase a lot on here and have heard it a lot.

It seems totally based on context. If someone is in a bad relationship (family, friend, romantic), they are making excuses for the other person's relationship. But if they are in a good relationship, then they are being supportive and understanding where the other is coming from. This doesn't sound right, however, so I was hoping you all could help me understand this.

I'm not in therapy anymore or I'd ask my therapist. She did say that my baseline of "normal" for how human interactions go was off due to my childhood (raised by my grandmother who definitely had an undiagnosed mental illness), so this may be one of those "normal" things that I need a little help understanding.

I guess a more succinct way to ask: What's the opposite of making excuses for someone?
posted by inmyhead to Human Relations (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Understanding where they are coming from doesn't absolve them of responsibility or consequences. Making excuses for them usually somehow absolves them of responsibility and attempts to shield them from the consequences of their behaviours.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 4:55 AM on December 6, 2013 [43 favorites]

What's the opposite of making excuses for someone?

There's no such thing, really, and no need for one. What someone experiences and what someone does in response to that experience are two totally different things. One can understand, express understanding of and empathize with someone else's situation without passing judgement on the choices that person made in reaction to their situation.
posted by jon1270 at 5:07 AM on December 6, 2013

Actual true examples from my life:
1. My husband had a shitty first wife that was manipulative, emotionally abusive, and passive aggressive. She went out of her way to criticize him and demean him. Because of this he sometimes gets really defensive and thinks I'm being critical and unkind when really I'm not.

making excuses:
He had a shitty wife and she treated him like crap, it isn't his fault that he doesn't always treat me fairly because of that. He had a hard go of it, he doesn't really mean to be a jerk to me, and him occasionally being a jerk is a lot less than what he went through with her.

understanding where he is coming from:
I understand why he reacts that way, but I'm still not going to let it happen. I am sympathetic of everything he went through with her, and his knee jerk defensive reactions were born of a need to protect himself from her, but I am not willing to be treated as though I am the enemy. I have not done anything wrong, I will not suffer the consequences of HER actions. I will help him learn and grow and reprogram himself so that he no longer has that knee jerk reaction and so that he no longer feels that his loved ones are out to get him somehow. He is deserving of respect, but so am I.

2. My son's daycare doesn't allow them to bring toys from home because too often the toys get broken or damaged or stolen. Occasionally kids break this rule and sneak things in. Recently one of my son's friends brought in their iPod touch and showed it off to everyone at daycare. The next day my son tried to sneak my iPad in to his backpack, presumably to show off to the kids. It has been a long established and very well understood rule that I am more than happy to share my iPad with him and that he can play with it as much as he likes as long as he handles it carefully and does not take it anywhere without my permission.

making excuses:
He just wanted to be cool. Yes he knew the rule, but he's a kid. He doesn't know better.

understanding where he is coming from:
He just wanted to be cool. He very much likes to be the centre of attention and I am guessing that having his friend trump him so completely at daycare today was frustrating for him. However, he still understood the rule about the iPad AND the rule about bringing toys to daycare. In order for him to learn that it isn't okay to knowingly break rules and go behind people's back he lost his iPad privledges for a couple of days and he had to "earn" the right to use it back by proving to me that I could trust him with it again.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:11 AM on December 6, 2013 [32 favorites]

Also, in my mind there is an opposite to making excuses for someone, and that is to hold them accountable.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:20 AM on December 6, 2013 [20 favorites]

PuppetMcSockerson has it exactly. To put it another way, "making excuses" is an enabling behavior that doesn't really expect change to happen, whereas "understanding where someone is coming from," in a best-case scenario, is allowing space and time for improvement.

You can certainly make an excuse that involves understanding why someone does what they do - it can be an excuse to say "He snaps at me when he's stressed because that's how his parents always handled their emotions" or "She steals my phone and reads my texts because her last three girlfriends cheated on her" - but when you're making an excuse you're really just helping to find reasons to allow the behavior to continue. The opposite of making excuses might use the same words, but you would either expect an improvement or be setting up your own boundaries to protect yourself from that behavior.

Making excuses minimizes or tries to erase the bad behavior; healthy understanding acknowledges how bad something is, while still requiring change in some form.
posted by DingoMutt at 5:41 AM on December 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

The way I see it:

Making excuses: You did X because of Y. Therefore, I will just learn to live with X.

Understanding: You did X because of Y. Therefore, I won't get *mad* about X, but you need to recognize this and we'll figure out ways to work around it, dealing with Y if we can, so X starts happening less until it stops.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:41 AM on December 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Cynically I think sometimes this comes down to how much "capital" the person we're making the excuses has. For example if i have a super good friend who is generally lovely and supportive but one day stands me up for dinner because her car broke, even though the breaking car is an excuse it would be totally ok by me and I'd feel bad she had car problems. But if it was a friend who is pretty shitty and always late and runs a beater car that always breaks even though she can afford to fix it she doesn't bother to call to let me know she not coming and i think "oh well she probably ran out of cell phone minutes, and mechanics are a pain and there aren't any pay phones" that would probably get called making excuses.

The bottom line for me is that there are some behaviors which should not be excused and its important to know what those are based on the relationship and the circumstances. But there are other times where understanding where someone is coming from is appropriate and a sign of empathy. So for me its deciding what I will put up with, and where my firm lines are, and then deciding what I'll accept based on the relationship/circumstances.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 5:48 AM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

To add on to Spacewarp's comment, sometimes we stick up for people we shouldn't because we are invested in them in some way. If this person is totally horrible then, by extension, we are horrible for liking them. We might ask for others to excuse a discretion because this person is "so good at heart" or "has bad circumstances." It's a defensive posture of the herd.

Example: my mom's defense of certain deplorable people in her life (including my father) because she knows how "truly good" they are at heart. I finally got through to her with a step-uncle by saying, "Look, I don't doubt that he means well but what he is saying is objectively horrible and rude and it's not fair to me to tell me not to be upset. Because, I too am 'good at heart' and don't deserve to be treated this way."

But, we make concessions for people for all kinds of reasons which may or may not appear rational. And one person's "let it pass" is another's hill to die on. You don't have to accept their rationale.
posted by amanda at 6:00 AM on December 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

Making excuses and understanding where someone is coming from are both explanations of people's behaviour but with subtle shadings of meaning. Making excuses is associated with minimising harm to an extent, there's a suggestion of forgiveness and it not being so bad. This is regardless of the actual harm caused. Understanding where someone is coming from is about seeing someone's point of view whilst still having your own viewpoint. It has an inherent unspoken "but I think differently". If harm happens, it is not dismissed but recognised. I see making excuses as sweeping something out of the way, whereas understanding where someone is coming from is about a public acknowledgement of healthy disagreement.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 6:15 AM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I totally agree with Puppet McSockerson, and the way The Underpants Monster has summarized that. I'd also add:
Total lack of empathy: You did X because of Y - and frankly Y is beside the point, because my problem is with X.

Also I think "I understand where you're coming from, but..." is used as a platitude sometimes, especially by managers in work situations, or customer service reps; basically anybody who's being asked for something by a person with less power. As in, "You think the project isn't feasible because there won't be a market for that feature? Well, I understand where you're coming from, but that feature is something that our designers were pretty adamant about." "I'm sorry, sir, I understand where you're coming from, but our return policy isn't flexible." Basically, it just gets said a whole lot more often than it's honestly true.
posted by aimedwander at 6:39 AM on December 6, 2013

There's Holding Someone Accountable vs. Making Excuses For Them (as others have said).

Holding Someone Accountable = Taking Action
Making Excuses For Them = Doing Nothing/Maintaining the Status Quo

Your college boyfriend cheats on you? Holding Someone Accountable = DTMFA, on the immediate. Making Excuses For Them = continuing to have sex with him and carrying on with the same romantic relationship.

Your mother steals your identity when you're a child? Holding Someone Accountable = cutting her out of your life, protecting your own children's information from her. Making Excuses For Them = never talking about it, continuing to act like you think she's a great mom, and carrying on with the same parent-child relationship.

You're the principal of an elite school, and one of your students sexually assaults another? Holding Someone Accountable = expelling the offending student, calling in specialists to intervene to change the school culture. Making Excuses For Them = keeping any news of the assault a secret to protect the school's reputation, allowing the offender to remain enrolled.

(Essentially: Action vs. Talk)

Empathy/Seeing Where The Other Person Is Coming From - IMHO has nothing to do with Action vs. Talk. It's a separate thing. I can have empathy for someone who cheats on me, steals from me, or hurts one of my kids, or I can hate them forever. That's all about how I process it emotionally. But, either way, I can Hold Them Accountable. It's about whether or not I take Action and change my response.

Empathy With Accountability:
There are plenty of people who had terrible childhoods and have been through loads of trauma who don't grow up to cheat, steal, or rape. I'm sorry that any child went through that, and we do a huge disservice to the survivors of terrible childhoods who don't engage in antisocial behavior when we assume they have no choice but to be aggressors. They are rational actors.

In general, shitty people (sadly, these are often people to whom we're related) use tactics like Guilt, Fear, Manipulation, and Minimizing to try to control us and/or get us to do things we don't want to do, things which are not in our best interests. (See An Adult Child's Guide To What's Normal by John C. Friel)
posted by hush at 6:52 AM on December 6, 2013 [7 favorites]

My boyfriend's brother is kind of an asshole. Especially to women. Especially when he feels like they aren't as smart as he is (sooooo pretty much all of them, think Sheldon Cooper but not restrained from using curse words because of TV censors).

My boyfriend's mother allows him to say really rude things to her, treat her poorly, or yell at her in public because "he isn't great with people" and "he doesn't understand social cues."

I understand that he has a hard time in social situations and I empathize BUT I also told him that he wasn't allowed to call me names during a discussion with opposing viewpoints and that if he continued to say things like, "you're a fucking idiot." That he would no longer be allowed in my home. He doesn't call me names anymore and I try not to get into discussions/situations that I know will make him uncomfortable.

Making excuses vs. understanding where he is coming from.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:18 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also see the making excuses example as sort of trying to make excuses about that person to other people. I think we all know people in relationships that might not be the ones we'd choose to be in but that seem to work for them. That said, when one person in a relationship tells you (as a person not in the relationship) that you should put up with something that maybe the person in the relationship has decided to put up with (rudeness, screaming, I don't know) then they are, to my mind, trying to make excuses meaning that they've normalized that person's bad behavior so that they think or say that other people should put up with it.

So to use a specific example from my life my father was an alcoholic. He would start drinking at 5 and would be sort of hammered by 7 or 8 pm. He wasn't an unpleasant drunk but he was erratic and sometimes would be rude or just odd. I did not like this about him but I also accepted that it was how he was. My choices, at this point, were to make this my secret shame, or still go about my life but warn/tell people that they might encounter him and that I didn't expect them to put up with drunken bullshit from him. So I could on the one hand be like "My dad is sick, he has a drinking problem, he can not control this." but on the other hand be like "It's still not okay for him to be rude or to wander in to where we are having dinner in his underwear so if that happens I will handle it and not make it anyone else's problem"

Sometimes you can't control the people in your life, specifically family members, who have problems. However you can decide to be all "Well what can you do, sometimes Dad will show up and verbally abuse the guests...!" or not, and make sure that your guests understand that even though you may not be able to change your troubled family member, you can also not make it their problem.

Another sometimes easier to understand way to explain it is with dog training. You may have a dog that bites but if your dog is on a leash or under your control you are, at the same time, understanding where the dog is coming from (they may be bitey, they may not be well trained yet, they may have come from an abusive home) but you're still on the hook if they bite someone. Making excuses would be letting the dog run around and then being all "Oh yeah he sometimes nips people" which may be a characteristic that you have decided us okay but is not something the average other person should tolerate. So I think of it as the difference between fault and responsibility. Ultimately the dog is the one doing the biting but you as the person who is the dog's go=between in the larger world have a responsibility to make his problem your problem and not everyone else's problem.
posted by jessamyn at 9:34 AM on December 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

My friend is an Intellectual Property lawyer, and he likes to say this about the Fair Use clause of the copyright laws: "It's a defense, not an excuse." Just because you claim it's fair use, you may still have to show up in court to do it-- it's not a free pass for behavior.

Excuse is a pass; defense is an explanation of circumstances, which might require leniency on the punishment. The understanding you're talking about is a matter of defense.

The third option is zero tolerance: no defense or excuse is valid.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:37 AM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

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