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National Tragedy, Universal Excuse

Don't want to socialize? Facing a downturn in business? Blame the world situation.

November 04, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A frazzled working mother with season tickets to the Long Beach Opera recently missed a performance. She called and asked for new ones, explaining she had been overwhelmed by the events of Sept. 11 and had not opened her mail to get her tickets. The truth of the matter was, she was vacationing in Yosemite.

The woman is not the only person who has used the national crisis as an excuse.

Although the evidence is anecdotal, it seems that plenty of people have invoked Sept. 11 as an explanation for behavior or decisions that actually have nothing to do with the attacks or their aftermath.

One woman, who resents having to send Christmas cards each year, was thrilled to hear a pundit speculate recently that perhaps suspending the tradition is the patriotic thing to do, in order to avoid overloading the U.S. Postal Service, which is grappling with anthrax.

And who hasn't at least thought to fend off an unwanted social invitation with the perfectly reasonable "No, thanks. I really need to stay home and bond with the family?" If nothing else, it's a fine alternative to "We can't stand the thought of spending an evening with you people."

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday November 9, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Long Beach Symphony--In a Nov. 4 Southern California Living story about people who use Sept. 11 as an excuse for being irresponsible, an anecdote about a woman who asked for new tickets should have said the tickets were for the Long Beach Symphony, not the Long Beach Opera.

For obvious reasons, these people prefer to remain unnamed.

As the excuses roll in, people on the receiving end are in the position of having to suppress skepticism, because the terrible event has been cited. Since the Enlightenment, there's been a premium on giving cause-and-effect explanations for most actions, says one scholar. "People say things like, 'Because of Sept. 11 we all are now going to wear blue blazers and khaki pants," said Sister Susan Sanders, director of the Center for Religion and Public Discourse at St. Xavier University in Chicago. "We jump to things like Sept. 11 as excuses because they are convenient. Maybe Sept. 11 was related, but it would take too much time to explain it. So people just say, 'because of Sept. 11,' and we are expected to understand. Because we are in this grieving mood, it's OK."

A local law firm sent out a change of address letter to clients Oct. 10 that began, "The tragic events of Sept. 11 continue to impact all of us." The letter went on to explain that the firm was moving its offices from West Los Angeles to Santa Monica. "Our law firm has determined that for what we believe to be compelling reasons, the best interests of our attorneys and our staff will be served by an immediate move from our current building to a new space...." Several calls to the firm were not returned, so it remains unclear if security issues were involved.

Some companies are not even waiting for excuses before accommodating customers. Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and American Express are a few companies that have extended grace periods and waived fees in special cases.

The mortgage branch of Wells Fargo set up a special phone line for customers affected by the attacks. "We have a voice response number that says, 'If you have been directly impacted by the events of Sept. 11, you may hit 1 now,"' said Wells Fargo mortgage spokesman Dan Frahm; 20,000 people have pushed 1. "It could be people calling to say, 'Can you help me with my mortgage payment.' It could be a number of people who just want to talk to someone live."

Of course there are seemingly ridiculous excuses that turn out to be plausible.

For example, a condom company based in uptown Manhattan received a letter from a consumer complaining of a defective product back in August and did not reply until the end of September. Due to computer trouble caused by the events of Sept. 11, the letter said, we are unable to respond at this time. Nor any time soon, it would appear. Though the company's excuse is plausible, one can only wonder why the firm can't respond to a consumer's letter. After all, the financial markets were up and running within days of the attacks.

A Sept. 27 breast cancer benefit concert, sponsored by Step Up Women's Network, was moved from the 6,100-seat Greek Theatre to the 2,200-seat Wiltern Theatre citing the more "intimate and personal setting."

"In light of recent tragic events, philanthropic efforts have been refocused to other immediate causes and therefore, a smaller venue is better suited for the show at this time," the change of venue notice reads.

Although it appeared at first blush that the group may have been trying to save face due to anemic ticket sales, in reality, founder and president Kaye Popofski said the organization was just trying to funnel as much money as possible to the cause, rather than renting a more expensive venue that might end up half-empty.

"It was 100% a financial move," Popofski said. "No question. There was just no way to fill the Greek. We didn't have to move it. We just wouldn't have raised as much money."

Those who study the moral dimensions of decision-making say that using Sept. 11 as an excuse when it is not warranted raises interesting ethical questions.

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