I'm reading an article in today's Globe and Mail by Zosia Bielski, which I'm reading in hard-copy but which I'm sure the industrious person could find online, about Ann Burnett, a professor at North Dakota State University, who has been collecting annual Christmas letters from all over the place. She doesn't know all of the people, and their correspondence spans the globe, but she's finding trends. The biggest trend, it seems, is that people started, over the years, replacing good news with expostulations of busyness.
Reading it reminded me of an exchange I had a couple of weeks ago with two salespeople. I was in the mall with my sister-in-law, and we were in Williams-Sonoma. I was approached by one salesperson, who started in on the classic and largely insincere exchange which greases the bearings of social intercourse: "Hi," he started, "how are you?" "Fine thanks," I replied, "How are you?" "ugh, I'm really tired," he said, nodding his head, like I should understand this or wait to listen to more of what he wanted to tell me. I did neither, and said "Oh," and moved away. In the next store we went into, the salesperson asked me how I was and after replying with the standard 'fine, thanks,' again he told me how tired he was, adding this time that he's really busy. I was rattled. What was going on? My sister-in-law, in a different store on the same day, actually got stuck in a conversation (monologue, really) with a salesperson who was telling her at length about how busy and exhausted he was from doing things in his life. I mistakenly thought that he was assisting my s-i-l, and so failed to jump in and rescue her from this barrage as I should have.
In wondering about why these people decided to skip the usual politeness and go straight to telling us about how crazy life is, a number of possible explanations occurred to me. Perhaps they were rebelling against the retail world, and forcing intimacy upon unsuspecting customers by denying them the easy introductory exchanges before telling them about daily promotions. They would have to be pretty organized for us to have experienced this in multiple stores. Or, perhaps they were in their early 20s and still totally wrapped up in their own egos, not realizing that no one else cares how busy they are. (No one cares about your band! Everyone is in a band!) This wouldn't explain why some 30-something acquaintances have fallen into this kind of exchange pattern, and not all of the people we encountered in their 20s displayed this lack of manners.
The article in the Globe and Mail gives another theory. Burnett and others who work in similar research are starting to think that though people complain (or seem to) about the crazy pace of their lives, they also accept it as if there is no other option. They also suggest that people are starting to be very proud of the hectic lives they live, where friends have to book a lunch date months in advance: "When you move fast and are productive, you are relevant." Taking time to do nothing, or even dropping commitments entirely, is unthinkable. What would you do? What would they do without you?
I think social media is tied in with this as well. Do people decline invitations anymore? It would be harder, I think, to turn down some invitations when there's a good chance that event photos will turn up on Instagram. You could say you were invited and turned it down, but no one will be listening as they flip through the pretty pictures.
I want to encourage my friends and family, who make up the majority of people who read this blog (thanks guys!), to have a very un-busy Christmas this year. I don't usually write Christmas letters, figuring that people who want to be caught up on my life have multiple platforms (including this blog) for achieving that throughout the year. However, I do want to put some qualities of Burnett's gold-star letters, as determined by her letter-coding system, into my real-life exchanges; an 'A' for 'authentic' letter-writing showed appreciation for the present, an understanding that time is finite, and the relaying of real-life hilarity rather than one-upsmanship or busier-than-thou list-making.
Let's take some time to do what matters this month, slow down and relish the moments we have with each other, and put aside the things that we do because we think we should do them, or because they might look good to someone else. I promise I won't assume that your schedule is flexible.