People Standing Around Talking About How Busy They Are

Everyone is in a hurry these days. And everyone talks about how everyone is in a hurry. I was re-reading Bruce Boyer’s True Style tonight to relax. He made me think about the connection between sprezzatura and manners. He writes:

It’s an important lesson we seem to have forgotten, this idea that civility rests on the little lie, the sin of omission, the harmless compliment, the overlooked slight, the tiny fabrication, the artful ability to conceal effort and inappropriate passions. These little niceties – manners, they used to be called – are the grease on the wheels of social friction. […] Sprezzatura is a matter of reaching for perfection, while cultivating the impression of never having given it a thought. It’s the sense of ease, the air of never having prepared, that wins the day. The man who’s all color coordinated is the one, we feel, who blatantly tries too hard. His clothing sends a clear message: he’s insecure.

Concealing art and effort have their own national manifestations, I’m told. Like Boyer says, there’s the Italian sprezzatura, there’s American cool, and then there’s a distinct British rumpled nonchalance. You can see the latter in upper-class people or people who like to pose as upper-class people: they never have to try very hard. If they do it right, you won’t know the difference. In fact, you may think their work and life are  just a well-rehearsed stage show they just happen to effortlessly star in.

If you approach complaining about being busy as a question of manners (as opposed to a question of style), people might take offence. Is it rude say you are stressed out and overworked? I don’t think so, especially if it is a call for help or, as is more often the case, empty small talk. However, I think the small talk in this case may drown out actual calls for help. In this sense, it would be rude to talk casually about stress, because you may be making light of someone’s real distress.

What, then, should be done? Talking explicitly about how people use talk about being busy is crossing the line in both cases, so a smartass meta-analysis is not the way to go in casual conversation. Perhaps the thing to say is: “I won’t keep you, since you are so busy.” Or: “Let’s talk some other time when we both have the time.” Both of these options seem fine to me. What you shouldn’t do, I think, is start comparing notes about how busy both of you are. If you do that, at the end you will be two extremely busy people wasting time talking about how busy you are. And that’s just silly.

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