The reason Americans value ‘busyness’ has less do with work ethic than culture

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There just aren’t enough hours in an American day.
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Thomson Reuters

There’s an upshot to being super busy all the time.

When you tell other people how swamped you are these days, they’ll think you’re really important.

But according to new research from Columbia Business School, Georgetown University, and Harvard Business School, that implicit association between busyness and importance isn’t necessarily universal. While Americans see busyness as a status symbol, other cultures may instead see leisure time as a status symbol.

For the study, which was described in The Harvard Business Review, researchers asked American participants to look at fake social-media posts from a supposedly busy person (“Oh I have been working non-stop all week!”) and from a person who supposedly had a lot of free time (“Enjoying a long lunch break”).

Results showed that participants rated the people who’d posted about being busy as higher in social status than people who’d posted about their free time.

The most fascinating experiment in the study compared Americans’ perceptions of busyness to Italians’. Participants read about a 35-year-old man who worked long hours and had a full calendar and a 35-year-old man who didn’t work and had a leisurely lifestyle.

Sure enough, Americans rated the man who worked long hours as higher status. But Italians rated the man of leisure as higher status.

The researchers found that this cultural difference boils down to different perceptions of social mobility in the two countries.

Participants who saw hard work as the path to success (as is generally the case in the US) were more likely to see busyness as a status symbol. People who saw socioeconomic class as more fixed (as is generally the case in Europe) tended to see leisure time as a status symbol.

Previous research suggests that people tend to brag about how much they’re “working” – even if they’re not technically working for all that time. That’s because it suggests to others that they’re important and influential.

Of course, when you keep telling other people how busy (and important) you are, you might start to believe it yourself. But at least one time-management expert suggests that we generally have more time than we think.

In other words, you’re probably not quite that busy – and once you realize that, you can make time for all those non-work activities you truly enjoy.