How Are You, Really? Things to Say Instead of ‘Busy’ (And, Why ‘Busy’ Bugs Me)

Last summer, I went to a wedding for a friend from college and had the chance to catch up with some classmates who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in a few years.

Sitting in that Connecticut church before the services began, I was pretty excited to catch up and share the what’s-new. I’ve learned to love these little opportunities, these short and challenging bursts of conversation where you have (conceivably) so much to say and so little time to say it. Where do you begin? What do you say?

It’s a fun game for me. I never know what I’ll say beforehand, so it’s like I’m discovering what’s honest and genuine about me in that very moment, just as it’s being shared with whomever I’m speaking.

But I was stonewalled.

…about 8 times.

You’d figure I and those handful of friends would have a lot to catch up on. A lot to share. New passions and projects. Something different and exciting. A new relationship to describe, or a hilarious first date just had.

We didn’t. Everyone was the same, supposedly.

Everyone was “busy.”

Just busy.

Those conversations-to-be ended with a thud. No more connection was had. The sharing, shared experience, relating to one another, exploring, camaraderie, sparks of inspiration or new ideas realized… gone. In a poof of “busy.”

As I turned back in my pew to face the front of the church and waited for the wedding ceremony to begin, I had a flashback.

That flashback was to a piece of writing that I had read in the New York Times by Tim Kreider in 2012.

(You know a piece of writing is good when the thought of it stays with you three years later.)

The piece was called, The ‘Busy’ Trap. I remember this piece every time that I’m confronted by the most common, overused, self-complimentary complaint in the English language today: busy.

In Kreider’s words,

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.’

Oof. This paragraph catches me in the gut every time I read it.

Think of how many times you’ve probably heard yourself say something like…

  • “Things are good… busy.”
  • “I’ve been okay. Really busy.”
  • “Eh, you know, same old… busy.”

“Busy” is a catch-all phrase that implies a whole lot without having to explain much else. “Busy” is an empty umbrella-term used to escape what we don’t want, and it’s easy. “Busy” sweeps away unwanted conversations about “How we’ve been,” and “What we’ve been up to lately,” and “How life has been treating us recently,” in as few as four letters.

Kreider also observes that this word complains about something while simultaneously implying a passive, backwards compliment.

That’s why “busy” tends to be so overused.

Although no one wants to be busy (because “busy” is bad, hectic, overwhelming, daunting, anxiety-inducing, chaotic), “busy” quietly conveys that our lives, hectic as they are, are indeed blessed with the privileges of “fullness” in some form.

I don’t think we really mean to say “busy” so much to backhandedly compliment ourselves. I think we say “busy” when we simply feel “full.” Full with work or studies or responsibilities. Full of plans, to-do lists and duties. Full with time passing by quickly.

But in his piece, Kreider continues to say that we’re usually “full” of things that conceivably matter. Full of people who hypothetically care.

That’s another kick in the gut, every time I remember it.

When we complain about being busy, “busy” usually means that there’s not a whole lot to complain about. A job. Obligations and responsibilities. Dollars being earned. Duties being done. Family, friends, loved ones…

“Busy” is almost like bragging about how full our lives are, while complaining about what exactly is filling the jug.

For me, I feel bad enough using this word as a passive complaint about the “fullness” of my everyday life, work and relationships.

But this common-day quip is also a colloquial cop-out that robs us of our communicative power in everyday conversations.

And that drives the communicator in me a bit batty.

I think back to how it felt when I was sitting in that pew, not knowing a single ounce of anything new or exciting or meaningful in the lives of those few old friends in the church–after at least two years of not seeing or speaking with them.

It wasn’t their fault, or anyone else’s.

It was busy’s fault.

This word that’s become our collective crutch to avoid connection.

By resorting to “busy” when we’re asked how we’re doing, we dismiss healthy dialogue that sews a sense of connection to others. We uproot constructive conversation that is utterly vital to our well-being. When we default to “busy,” we lose a precious opportunity to use words to sift, sieve and sort through “what is happening” on the internal landscapes of our hearts, minds and souls.

That’s my problem with you, busy.

Every conversation is a vital chance.

Each connection is a moment to forge understanding.

“Busy” is endangering our precious few opportunities to connect, share, experience and flourish. They’re precious, because we’re living in a time when text messages replace phone calls. Faces stay in cell phones at bars, shops and cafes rather than making eye contact with human souls seated within our arm’s reach.

Busy is a sly, subconscious way our minds exercise avoidance to what is more comfortable to avoid, than confront.

We’re becoming more and more isolated from one another. That kind of isolation causes deep loneliness in our souls, and sadness, and anxiety, and confusion, and crisis.

“Busy” isn’t the one cause of all those woes, of course. But this one crutch of conversation is a good starting point. It’s the perfect place to begin. It’s one word you can observe, and try to avoid.

Things to say instead of ‘busy.’

“How have you been lately?”

Featuring the letter F-

Filled with obligations.
Full, but unfulfilling.
Over-freaking-flowing.
Fascinating and fun!
Flexible. Fluid and moving.
Feverish and fast-paced.
Fixing my feet in the earth. Finding my center.
Freeing. I’ve been forging forever, and finally feel free.

Featuring the letter B-

Bound by responsibilities.
Buried.
Building, brick by brick.
Buoyant. I feel like I’m bouncing.
Bewildering. I’m betwixt and between this, that and the other.
Bouncing here, there and everywhere, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

“Happy Friday! How was your week?”

Featuring the letter R-

Repetitive. Really repetitive. Royally repetitious. And having escaped the repetitiveness for the weekend, I feel like I can breathe again.

Featuring the letter W-

Full of whimsy and wonder. Like I was a kid again. Only where I would once float naively, here I stand–firm, determined, and smiling a little wider.

Featuring wordplay!

Same ol’, same ol’, but I fully intend for that “same ol” to be quite different the next time you ask me.

…starting to get the picture?

The possibilities are endless.

All you need to do is replace ‘busy.’

And start to use the words at your disposal to open up, be a bit honest, and say… just about anything else.

Me, I don’t want to complain about my life’s “fullness,” I want to be grateful for it. And I don’t want to sidestep conversation, I want to live heart-open.

That’s why I want to ban “busy” from my vocabulary.

Maybe you feel similarly.

If so, I’d love to hear what words, phrases, sentences and communicative-genius springs to mind for you when you think to replace the word ‘busy.’

How might you describe the fullness in your life?

How might you offer a nugget of connection or an ounce of openness in the next conversation that finds you?

What will you say instead of ‘busy’?

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