I met another American affiliate student in my seminar the other day. It was an interesting experience, but not necessarily in a positive way. At best, I found the interaction jarring. The conversation went something like this:

Me: … Oh cool, how are you enjoying yourself so far?

Her: I’m just so tired. You as well?

Me: Yeah, I guess.

Her: I was literally out until 3 a.m. and then I had a 9 a.m. lecture today.

Me: Um, cool.

Her: But that’s just me. Do you have any reason that you’re tired?

Me: Not really. I slept like 8 hours–

Her: Oh, I forgot to mention that I also went boxing the other day. I’m tired from that as well. I literally can’t move my arms.

Me: Right.

Just a thought: There is such thing as conspicuous consumption, but is there something else called conspicuous busy-ness? In other words, if someone is busy without telling anyone else that they are busy, are they even busy at all?

I find it quite humorous that I could not full conceptualize the extent in which American culture glorifies business until I met another American student here in London. Although such conversations fetishizing being busy do not define my interactions with my close friends, I distinctly recall the ease in which most of my interactions with those individuals I am only vaguely acquainted with devolving into a session where we would complain about our stress. Especially this past semester, when the majority of my friends had been going through on campus recruiting, I reflect upon how easy it had been to demonize the stillness of not having deadlines.

She kept on checking her Google calendar throughout the entire seminar. It was, from even a cursory glance, very filled. And, throughout the seminar, she would add more items to her calendar, almost as if she were accumulating trinkets of busy-ness. She was texting her friend on iMessage throughout the entire seminar. I found it hard to pay attention. Despite some intriguing discussion about the role of Thackeray’s family history in the writing of Vanity Fair, all I could hear was the clicking of her typing. Her loud, obnoxious typing.

If I had met her during my freshman year, I would have thought she was genuinely such an interesting person. But sadly, I have learned that having a filled google calendar isn’t a personality trait.

It is interesting because I see very few UCL students texting in class. Or organizing their Google calendars. There are a few, of course, but not nearly on the same magnitude than at Penn. Once I saw the American affiliate student texting in class, I did not even need to ask if she were American. Especially in the seminars that I have attended, it is only the Americans that text in class. Perhaps, I am experiencing confirmation bias. I really wish that I am experiencing confirmation bias because I have actively searched for students who text during seminars who were not American. I failed.

I generally view it as a byproduct of the American obsession with productivity. But, from what I realized, there is also the dimension of unproductive busy-ness. Of course, individuals who like being busy like to fill their time with as much commitments as possible. Yet, not all forms of busy-ness were created equal. Similar to GDP growth, there is GDP growth that is actually indicative of economic growth, and then there is GDP growth that is merely symbolic and lacks any substance. This is the dichotomy that exists for busy-ness.

I think an interesting phenomena is the concept of ‘studying together’. It supposedly represents a combination of studying and hanging out, but, in actuality, it is a not a representation of either. It is a two-for-one in the sense that studying together allows individuals to simultaneously spend time with their friends but not slack on their academic coursework. But, if my freshman year has taught me anything, it is that studying together is not actually studying together. It is also implicit for something else. The representation of the wording is inclusive, sure, but not accurate.

Take, in this case, this girl who texts during class. The act of texting in class achieves to ends: going to class and talking to her friends. By simultaneously going to class and talking to her friends, she achieves two ends, which is one more than either going to class or talking to her friends. It is a two-for-one. And, by fitting in two activities in the space it would take to fill one activity, she is existing on a higher degree of busy-ness, similar to how objects with thought and extension have more metaphysical existence than objects with one attribute of either thought or extension.

But, as anyone who has texted in class can attest, the act of texting in class achieves neither meaningful socialization nor productive learning. It is an example of symbolic economic growth but not actual economic growth. On paper, she has achieved more than any other member of the seminar in the sense that she fit in two activities (i.e. going to class and talking to her friends) in one period of time. But, realistically, she has neither learned anything from the seminar nor had produced any meaningful discourse from the time.

I say this with certainty because, at one point, I looked over and read about her conversations. She was making plans of when she and her friends would go drinking next in a group chat with a couple of her other American friends. And, drinking very little myself, I have always never given that much thought to making plans to go out. I thought it would just be a simple text exchange that would last for five minutes at most. But, from her, I have learned that it has potential to be a multi-hour endeavour. And, by the end, she did not even agree to a time nor place to meet up.

I have had very little experiences of frustration over the past semester, but her existence bothered me in a fundamental way. It could be the clicking from her keyboard or the fact that she was wasting her valuable seminar time (we only had four seminars, per class, per semester) on planning out when she would drink next. Perhaps it is a reminder from the culture that I have left behind for a semester, or perhaps it is a reminder of the self that I will be in the coming few months after I return to a culture that fetishizes busy-ness. I can’t imagine that the corporate world would be any better than the educational world that I have been exposed to thus far.

Is it a surprise that “busy-ness” and “business” are spelled so similar?