So what was your first thought when you read the title for this post?
If you’re American, there’s a good chance you might be kind of impressed.
If you’re Italian, not so much.
That’s the conclusion of some recent research that studied the effect of one’s busyness on their social status.
In one experiment participants read about either a Jeff who “works long hours and his calendar is always full” or a Jeff who “does not work and has a leisurely lifestyle.” Another experiment had participants read about a middle-aged shopper who either patronized a grocery delivery service like Peapod, the high-end grocery store Whole Foods, or Trader Joes. In a third experiment, participants read about either an Anne who listened to music on a Bluetooth headset or an Anne who listened to headphones.
The results indicate that the participants associated “busyness”and the accessories of busyness with high social status. They thought that Jeff was a higher status person when he was busy. They thought that the shopper who had groceries delivered had status on par with the shopper who went to notoriously expensive Whole Foods. And they found Anne to be of higher status when she was wearing a Bluetooth headset, since it suggested multitasking.
The researchers note that this mindset, associating busyness with high social status, is a radically different mindset from 100 years ago.
Thorstein Veblen, one of the biggest theorists on status signaling, suggested in 1899 that living a leisurely life and not working (what he refers to as “conspicuous abstention from labor”) is the most powerful way to signal one’s status in the eyes of others. This makes sense: if you are very wealthy, you can afford as much leisure as you wish.
But take a look at what impresses people today:
- An analysis of holiday letters indicates that references to “crazy schedules” have dramatically increased since the 1960s.
- Celebrities on Twitter publicly complain about “having no life” or “being in desperate need for a vacation,” based on an analysis of hundreds of humblebrags.
- Ads used to feature wealthy people relaxing by the pool or on a yacht; today, ads feature busy individuals who work long hours and have very limited leisure time. Cadillac’s 2014 Super Bowl commercial featured a busy and leisure-deprived businessman lampooning those who enjoy long vacations.
The researchers believe that these status attributions are heavily influenced by our own beliefs about social mobility. The more we believe that one has the opportunity for success based on hard work, the more we tend to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing.
And that may explain why Americans and Italians view busyness differently.
Another research study found that Americans are more likely to perceive that they live in a mobile society, where individual effort can move people up and down the status ladder, while Italians are more likely to believe that they live in less mobile societies.
Personally, I’ve never been impressed when someone tells me how busy they are. I just assume that they are inefficient in managing their schedule and in completing their tasks.
So don’t be fooled by my headline. First off, I really wasn’t that busy today, and if even if I were, that’s certainly no reason to think more highly of me (although I’m quite certain no one actually did).
I know I’ve shared the video below once this week already, but it seems like a good way to end today’s post.
I got no deeds to do
No promises to keep
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me
Life, I love you
All is groovy
Sounds like my kind of day…
P.S. Thanks once again to Adam Grant’s monthly newsletter for providing the material for this post.