The social events we get invited to, by friends and colleagues, usually require the investment of time, money or both. So these tend to be our go-to excuses for when we can’t make it to something. But we know surprisingly little from research about how others perceive this communication, and how our excuses affect our relationships. Researchers set out to study these effects by analyzing real conversation data on Twitter and conducting a number of lab experiments. The results show that giving an excuse about not having enough time can hurt relationships, whereas giving an excuse about not having enough money can help them.
Last spring I received a save-the-date to attend a friend’s wedding in Paris. While I was excited for my friend, two big concerns jumped to mind: traveling to Paris would not only cost a lot of money, it would take up most of my limited vacation time.
I decided I would not attend the wedding, but I struggled with how to break the news to my friend. Do I simply say I can’t make it? Do I share that I don’t have enough vacation time or money for the trip? What was the best way to avoid hurting her feelings or signaling that I didn’t value our friendship?
The social events we get invited to, by friends and colleagues, usually require the investment of time, money or both. So these tend to be our go-to excuses for when we can’t make it to something. But we know surprisingly little from research about how others perceive this communication, and how our excuses affect our relationships.
With colleagues Ashley Whillans, Michael Norton, and Anne Wilson, I set out to study these effects by analyzing real conversation data on Twitter and conducting three lab experiments. The results show that giving an excuse about not having enough time can hurt relationships, whereas giving an excuse about not having enough money can help them.
How people respond to our excuses
The first part of my study involved analyzing conversations between users on Twitter. Over a one-week period in 2018, I pulled tweets directed to a specific user that contained the phrase, “don’t have money” or “don’t have time,” giving me a total dataset of 2,310 tweets, with slightly more than half communicating limited time. One way the addressed user can respond is to “like” the tweet. I found that Twitter users were significantly less likely to “like” a tweet about not having time compared to one about not having money. This effect held even when controlling for other factors, such as the number of followers a user had and how active they were on Twitter.
This gave some initial evidence that people respond to communication about limited money and time differently. But conversations on Twitter can be impersonal and between strangers; what happens between friends and colleagues?
To test this, I recruited a sample of 327 brides and grooms living in the United States who were currently planning their wedding and had sent out wedding invitations. I asked them how many guests declined their invitation because of not having enough money or enough time. On average, participants reported receiving two excuses about money and two excuses about time in response to their invitation (people sent in other reasons as well), suggesting that these excuses are equally common.
I also asked the couples to reflect on how close they felt to people who most recently turned them down due to money or time — I wanted to know how close they felt before and after being declined. Brides and grooms said that, before receiving the response, they felt equally close to these guests; but after getting the news, they reported feeling significantly less close to guests who cited limited time compared to those who cited limited money.
Why would excusing ourselves from something due to a lack of time result in people feeling less close to us? To test this, we recruited a sample of 300 working adults and had them consider a scenario: they invited a friend to go out to dinner, and the friend declined. Some of our participants learned that their friend blamed busyness (“sorry I don’t have the time”), while others learned that their friend blamed funds (“sorry I don’t have the money”), and some received no excuse at all. We then asked participants how close they felt to this friend after hearing their response, and whether they trusted and believed the friend had a good excuse. We also asked how much control they believe people have over their time and money use in general.
Relative to receiving no excuse, we found that the time excuse resulted in participants feeling less close to the friend, whereas a money excuse resulted in participants feeling significantly more close to the friend. Participants found a money excuse to be much more trustworthy than a time excuse or no excuse, in part because they believed that the friend likely had less personal control over the circumstance they were citing as an excuse.
It seems that because we think others should have more control over their time, we think they should be able to make time to do the things in life they really want to do. So we’re more likely to distrust the excuse that they don’t have time for us, and this ultimately impacts how close we feel to them.
Seems intuitive, right? Interestingly, we often don’t realize this when we’re making the excuse, which might explain why we often blame our time. In a fourth experiment, I found that people believe communicating about limited time will appear more trustworthy, and be perceived more favorably, than it actually is. We had 808 people engage in a conversation about giving to charity. Half the participants were assigned to talk, while the other half were assigned to listen. Of those who talked, we asked half to share that they would give to charity if they had more time, and the other half said they would if they had more money. Participants who listened then decided how to split a set of tasks — some difficult, some easy — between the two of them. We found that participants who listened to a money excuse gave their partner more easy tasks than the participants who heard an excuse about time. This difference was due to participants finding money excuses to be less personally controllable, and more trustworthy. The people who gave the excuses, however, did not predict these differences.
If we want to effectively manage our time and our money – two of life’s most scarce and valuable resources – we need to be able to say “no” to things. But if we want to preserve our relationships, we have to do so the right way. My results suggest that when we decline someone’s invitation because we don’t have enough time, the person hears that we don’t value them. This makes them feel less close to us and maybe even less willing to help us in the future. So it may be wiser to communicate that you don’t have enough money (presuming that’s true), as people are less likely to then question how much you value the relationship. Instead, you’ll be seen as honest and reliable, which generates more positive feelings and good will.
Of course, there are circumstances when a money excuse might be inappropriate (for example, communicating with your supervisees); in these cases, I found in another study (N = 300) that it’s more effective to decline by saying you “don’t have energy” versus “don’t have time,” because people perceive energy to be less controllable than time.
When I had to decline my friend’s wedding invitation, I ultimately responded that I didn’t have enough time to make the trip to Paris. Things were cool between us for a while, but given the evidence I was uncovering, I made sure to call and text her frequently for wedding updates. There will surely be moments when we simply need to pass on an invitation because we don’t have time. But it is important to realize that the relationship will need extra attention to recover, and you may want to find some time to do that.
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