The Dog Ate My Homework and Other Lame Excuses

dog sleeping on the floor
He’s not feeling so good either.

I never told a teacher that the dog ate my homework in grade school. It would not have worked for me because a.) I usually had my homework done and b.) we did not have a dog. But somewhere along the line, it must have been used by some enterprising student who felt safe because the dog wouldn’t talk. Because of loyalty, of course, and because…dog lips.

The adult equivalent of the dog ate my homework is food poisoning. As a manager, I’d heard this excuse or its euphemistic alter ego “It must have been something I ate” dozens of times over the years, but I never thought to question it until I read Sarah Todd’s piece on Quartz titled “Why You Should Never Tell The Boss You Have Food Poisoning.”

Todd makes a compelling case for why food poisoning is the most lame yet effective call in excuse ever. She writes:

“Food poisoning… is an excuse that is wildly overused, suggesting an ominous world in which the average diner must be under near-constant attack from armies of raw chicken and bombardments of unwashed lettuce leaves. It’s a perennial favorite on message boards where workers swap tips about what to tell their bosses to take advantage of sunny days or otherwise skip out on the office, and CNBC has even gone so far as to recommend it as an apropos summertime excuse: “There are a lot of festivals, picnics, work events, county fairs, state fairs and other events where people eat all kinds of crazy things, so your chances of getting food poisoning probably go up in the summer,” it noted in a piece from 2012.”

While food poisoning happens –  US Centers for Disease Control estimates that 48 million Americans come down with a foodborne illness each year – it’s also conveniently gross enough that no one wants the details. Todd writes:

“There are several reasons people tend to fall back on food poisoning as an explanation:

  • Real food poisoning often requires that you spend much of your day lying on the bathroom floor by the toilet, which is exactly what you’d be doing if you were, say, wretchedly hungover.
  • It comes upon you suddenly and without warning, so there’s no problem if you came to work appearing perfectly healthy the day before, only to get unexpectedly dumped that evening, requiring a mandatory day of crying in bed.
  • It’s flexible. You can recover from food poisoning in a one-day period, should you just be ducking out for a quick day at the beach, but it’s also believable that it could stretch on for another 24 hours.”

Plus, it’s gross.

Everyone sympathizes, but no one believes you, according to Todd and her colleague at Quartz, who she quotes as saying: “At this point, I read ‘food poisoning’ as a polite way to say, ‘I’d rather not say’ or ‘I’m playing hooky.’”

For the record, I have had food poisoning (once, over 30 years ago) and it is a miserable experience. You’re equally afraid you might die and you might have to live through it. Worst 24 hours ever.

But next time you need a mental health day, say the dog ate your motivation. And it gave him an upset stomach. He’ll never tell.

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