There’s this word that you probably use all the time. It’s a seemingly harmless word—close to meaningless, really—but it’s slowly, subversively tainting your relationships.
Look back over any recent texts and emails you’ve sent to friends. If they look something like this, you’re caught in this word's trap:
You guessed it. The single-word saboteur is busy. It’s stealthily driving your friends away, and it’s time to eliminate it from your social vocabulary.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with actually being busy: People can certainly have many obligations and still maintain great relationships. And it’s not being busy that drives people away; it’s the word itself.
Let’s discuss the top three reasons it’s time to be done with “busy”… and three ways to replace it with something better.
1. Everyone is Busy.
These days, saying you’re busy is basically like saying you’re alive. Being busy may once have been an indicator of importance; it may once have implied that many people and projects relied on you. Now, it’s a filler word that can be applied to any situation: You could be 10 years into your job and be “busy.” You could be between jobs and be “busy.” You could be vacationing and be “busy.” The word itself no longer relates to any specific, making it basically meaningless—and meaningless language is a problem for relationships because it doesn’t help other people understand what, specifically, you’re going through. It actually impedes mutual understanding.
2. It’s Open to (Negative) Interpretation.
The vague nature of “I’m really busy” leaves the real reason why you’re being unavailable to a friend open to interpretation. While many people will accept “being busy” as enough of a reason for not hanging out the first few times you use it, eventually friends will see it as a veil over a more sinister reason for staying away: Maybe you don’t like them anymore and are too afraid to say it.
In other words, “busy” allows others to fill in the blank of your true intentions. Often, they will fill that blank with a negative assumption. In a worst-case scenario, friends may feel like your "busy” is a way of blowing them off without having to state a reason for doing so.
3. It’s a “Not Right Now.”
Often, “busy” simply means that you have higher priorities right now than seeing friends—which is totally fine. You may be caring for a child or launching a new product; there are lots of legitimate reasons why friendships fall down one’s list of priorities. The issue is that “ being busy” doesn’t communicate any of that. In a previous post, 5 Phrases That Can Kill a Relationship, I wrote that the phrase “not right now” is a relationship killer because it fosters a feeling of rejection. “Busy” is the friendship equivalent of “not right now.” It lacks a sense of caring about the other person and fosters distance as a result.
3 Better Options
All that being said, just because “busy” is not a word that generates closeness, that doesn’t mean you can’t communicate the same thing in a way that does. Here are some tips for telling your friends you just can’t right now, without hurting their feelings:
1. Be Specific.
There’s an easy way to eliminate the vagueness of “busy” and that’s telling friends specifically what you’re busy doing. Of course, this takes more of your time and effort—something that can be challenging when you’re already really swamped. But it’s worth doing because the difference in how the message is received is significant.
Let’s say you invite a friend to your birthday party and she writes back: “I’d love to but I’m really busy!” But what if she had written: “I’d love to but Jack has a karate competition that evening and he specifically asked me to watch him this time. Have some champagne for me, though!”
Feel the difference? The second message explains your friend’s reasoning, gives context, and communicates that she’s still invested in your happiness. The first message, frankly, is a blow-off.
2. Set a Time Frame.
If you’re busy because of an especially difficult crunch time either at work or at home, it’s helpful to make your friends aware of just how long this “busy” time will last. For example, if you know your project will wrap up in a month and your schedule will open up soon after, communicate your desire to reconnect with everyone then. Even if that month turns into two, your friends will appreciate that you expressed the desire to be together again as soon as possible.
3. Determine if You Need to Have a Difficult Conversation.
And now, it’s time to confront the dark side of “busy.” As we all know, “being busy” can be a method by which we disengage from a relationship we no longer want to have. The kids call it “ghosting"—distancing yourself from a relationship without ever explaining why. If you’re using “busy” in this way, it’s worth determining if you need to have that difficult conversation with the person you’re ghosting. While it’s always uncomfortable to “break up” with a friend, some friendships deserve this attention. In some cases, it’ll cause great sadness to both parties to “busy” a friendship to death.
Kira Asatryan is a relationship coach and the author of Stop Being Lonely: Three Simple Steps to Developing Close Friendships and Deep Relationships.