The new snobbery - keeping busy

On a snowy January lunch hour, a friend and I meet at a nearby restaurant to catch up on weeks of news.

"How's everything?" she asks, her cheerful tone brightening the grayness of the day. "Fine," I reply, giving her my cheeriest voice in return. Then I add, "It's been a busy month."

Busy. There's that word again. The one we all use, and the one I'm trying to banish from my vocabulary for a while. Busy has become a knee-jerk response, a cliche for our times, a companion to that other overworked adjective of the decade, stressed.

Not that busy isn't a truthful answer. We're all busy. Too busy. Clutching bulging Day Planners and Filofaxes, we hurry everywhere. We put in long hours at work, then rush home to begin what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the "second shift." We speak proudly of "juggling" and "balancing" myriad responsibilities. And as we look at long lists of Things to Do, we congratulate ourselves on our efficiency.

Being busy has become a badge of honor, a supposed validation of our worth. I'm overcommitted, therefore I am. To be busy is a sign of importance. Not to be busy - well, that doesn't really count in some circles. Relaxation, once the province of the privileged classes and the prized ideal of all the worker bees, has fallen on hard times.

Only telephone lines are no longer busy. Thanks to call waiting, the busy signal is disappearing fast. Who has time to keep dialing?

Where did this culture of busyness come from? When did leisure, or even occasional well-deserved idleness, start getting such a bad rap?

The shift in attitudes probably began when women entered the workforce in record numbers.

That made men's lives busier, too, even though the myth of Superwoman grew and grew.

Add to that the growing prevalence of a non-stop, 24/7 society. When all things are possible at any hour and the lights never dim, the temptation to add activities grows strong.

The culture of busyness starts early. Toddlers and preschoolers can enjoy the buzz of activity in picture books such as "Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town" and "Baby Bear Cub's Busy Day." For adults short on time, there are titles such as "365 Bible Promises for Busy Dads" and "Japanese for Busy People."

Busyness also takes high-tech forms, with websites for busy cooks, busy moviegoers, busy teachers, busy moms, and even busy brides.

In addition, manufacturers of cellphones, laptops, and palm organizers lure customers with promises that these products will help to simplify lives. Don't count on it. Ironically, the very technology that is supposed to liberate sometimes enslaves. What could be more demanding than always being in touch, never out of reach?

No one can claim that busyness is a modern invention. The 17th-century poet John Milton refers to "the busy hum of men." Even in the 14th century, Chaucer describes one man "who seemed busier than he was."

Today, braggers can test the patience of even the best listeners. One hairdresser in Minneapolis finds himself sometimes "worn out" by people who are impressed with how busy they are. As he cuts and styles, he says, customers often go on and on about all their activities.

Over lunch, my friend and I recall our parents' schedules as we were growing up. Their calendars were as full as ours, even if their commitments were different. Yet they didn't talk about being busy or stressed. They simply did what needed to be done.

When will all this busyness - or at least the talk about it - end? January, a month when calendars are still relatively pristine, might be as good a time as any to remember the old expression, "The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get."

My own vow to avoid saying the B word is proving to be a useful experiment, with calming effects. At home, we also remain among the last stalwart holdouts against call waiting. If you happen to get a busy signal, we hope you're not too busy to call back.

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