are you busy?


Are you busy?

This is the business analog to the “how are you doing” question that we use in social greetings. It is the question most people ask in professional situations as a means to develop small-talk and hopefully advance the conversation.

I’m sure it is meant with innocence on most people’s parts yet often I believe it is as shallow as asking the question how are you? This is not to say the person asking the question doesn’t care, it has just developed into a catchphrase more than an honest interrogatory request.

So let’s say the intent behind the question is sincere, is that the right question to ask in a business situation?

Those of us who are in business for ourselves or those whom have some vested interest in the success of the business wish to have enough work or perhaps more than enough work to satisfy financial goals. One of the first rules in business is to get the work, get the work, get the work. We must get the work in order to be successful in business. However as usual I am never satisfied with the questions people ask and I generally feel we ask the incorrect question most of the time.


In the most basic sense of the word busy, it means I have plenty of tasks to occupy my time that are seemingly useful or productive. I never lack for something to do both professionally or even personally. Long are the days when I could say that I was bored like a young teenager often mistakenly says to their parents.

Let’s look at this for what it is – are you busy? Here is why I don’t know how to answer it and why I’m awkward in social situations.

If I say no, it appears that either the market is slow or I am unsuccessful. If I say yes, most people smile and say “that is great” and the direction the conversation takes remains uncertain. Therefore, I don’t know what it measures. Having much work and having my time spoken for does not necessarily result in achieving goals.

Do you have interesting work, is a more thought-provoking question and one that might cause the conversation to progress in an meaningful direction. Are you doing rewarding work? Are you finding commissions that meet your professional goals? Are you satisfied? Are you happy? Is this the direction you wish to continue? Maybe your question is an inquiry to meeting financial goals, profits, or targets. My thoughts on these questions will be addressed another day.

Yes leave it to me to nitpick where nitpicking may be inappropriate, however every time I run into somebody whom I may not have seen for a while and we go through the proverbial socially acceptable pattern of small-talk, one of the first questions that I am typically asked is ‘are you busy’.

I wonder what would happen if after we say hello, hi or some other type of friendly salutation if we asked a more probing question, would we get to a more thought-provoking, more satisfying or relational conversation?

It’s something to think about the next time you are shaking someone’s hand.

I’m sure no one will ever talk to me ever again.


photo 1 credit: Harvesting via photopin (license)
photo 2 credit: Bee and Flower Bokeh II via photopin (license)
photo 3 credit: Suck it up via photopin (license)

are you busy?

17 thoughts on “are you busy?

  1. I love when someone asks an interesting (or probing) question that actually requires thoughtfulness on my part to answer. It is such a waste when someone gives a lame answer to a great question. Save your lame answers for all of the “how are you” and “are you busy” interactions.

  2. ted rusnak says:

    Some alternative questions that you may want to try. You retired yet? Can you get welfare checks when you’re on Social security? You ever going hire someone?
    Your concern regarding the greeting question is curious to me. You make it sound as though you really want to start an interview. I’ve been asked the “are you busy” question a number of times, mainly by folks who aren’t in the business. They have no idea what I do nor how busy I am or should be. My usual response? Yes, very. How are you doing?
    You make it sound as though you know that no one really cares about your answer but they have greet you somehow.
    And as a matter of fact I am exceedingly busy. And the lack of sleep or any relaxation has made me one nasty person…unless you’ve got a check for me. I’ll go away now. ciao..

    1. I invite the conversation but am at best amused with social convention. Perhaps I see time pass by at a different pace. I’d rather talk/listen than follow rules.

  3. It’s annoying when people ask that question. Some of my Indian friends don’t stop at that, I also get asked do you make enough money.. That’s more annoying than just “are you busy” 🙂

    I usually say depends – if you want to give me a project, I can always hire someone and make time.

  4. jane says:

    My clients tell other people that I listen.
    My answer to “Are you busy?” tends to be, ‘Yes.” followed by “How are you?” and me really paying attention. I usually get a good answer and the beginning of a conversation, even if short.

  5. I was once told by a realtor that sales people are taught to always allude to being busy – regardless of whether they are or not. When the economy was at rock bottom, it didn’t surprise me when a contractor or vendor would say, “We’re killin’ it!”, while many architects were open about how dismal things were. Yes, it can be a very superficial question to ask!

  6. bill says:

    some of my friends ask the more probing ‘working on any interesting projects?’ that could be a bombshell also – what if I said ‘no’? but I tell them what I’m working on and most times they find it interesting! (or they’re just being polite) I think the point is – what is your interesting question back to them? to my dentist friends – seen any interesting molars lately?

    1. …true, very true. The key point obviously is whether one is really interested in talking or sharing meaningless exchanges. I suppose it’s no different if someone asks “how are you?”…and then you tell them. Ask the right questions.

  7. I always reply to that question with “I’m as busy as I want to be. Very few on their last bed raise their heads and says “I wish I spent more time at the office!” so I’m having fun too. What are you doing for fun?”.

    “Busy” is not necessarily a good thing but is assumed to be. Same goes for the “Help wanted” notices that include the phrase “Busy, growing office….”.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. You’re so right. I ran into an engineer two weeks ago whom I haven’t seen for years and this is one of the questions he asked. He meant no harm, but it got me thinking. I’d like to think I ask more interesting questions that show I care what the other person says. I also heard that in some other countries that the response to “how are you” is not the response “I’m fine” as we say in America, but they respond with “I’m busy”. It’s their way to say (supposedly) that they’re successful because they have places to go. I’m not sure I share those values.

  8. Over the weekend I thought about what to ask other architects when I see them at AIA functions and the like. What about asking more direct questions such as ‘What are you building?’, ‘What’s on the drawing board?’ or ‘Have you participated in any interviews recently?’ At least then we can talk about more direct projects, and hopefully inspire one another!

  9. I get the “Are you working on anything interesting?” question quite a bit. I pat answer for so long has been “no” that i have to stop myself and qualify it. Of course i am as guilty as anyone of simply asking the small talk questions simply because i do not know how to get the conversation started. I appreciate you taking the time to think about this and proffer a more intentional way to interact.

  10. Thanks Matt. You know me, I can’t leave well enough alone. We’re all guilty, but writing allows me to think more about what I value and converse with others about what they value.

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