The Rise and Fall of the “Busyboy”: Were We Ever So Young?

On the evening of March 5th, as I crossed Houston Street alone en route to a gathering where I’d know next to nobody, I had zero idea that a new term was about to enter my lexicon. That night, I made my last new friend before a world-altering virus sunk its teeth into New York, and it was on this most auspicious occasion that she told me about… the busyboy.

Lea Carey, a talented illustrator and painter, coined the term “busyboy” with her friends not long ago. The descriptor refers to a romantic prospect who responds to your inquiry about making plans with a vague yet helpless reply, something along the lines of: “I’d love to, but I’m so busy right now.”

The busyboy… it’s tough to pin him down or identify precisely what afflicts him. He might not have the constitution to ghost you, or to let you down easy with some transparent communication. He might struggle with the task of time management, or a tendency to overcommit (time realists and busyboys alike will note that you only have 168 hours to work with every week). He might have a more myopic sense of his calendar, only planning a few hours or so into the future (it turns out this kind of mindset is rewarded in a pandemic). He might have an inner life so rich it’s tough to carve out room for others. Or maybe, just maybe, here’s where hope springs eternal and the benefit of the doubt lingers ever-present: You’ve just happened to catch him at a bad time. You wonder if the only way to get on the busyboy’s calendar is to propose getting to know each other with hyper-efficiency over a glass of strawberry Soylent.

What exactly is it that keeps a busyboy so busy?

Many have fallen prey to the fun and futile thought experiment of wondering: “What exactly is it that keeps a busyboy so busy?” Is he making his own jam? Learning new Excel shortcuts? Finding a vaccine for the novel coronavirus? Recruiting new guests for his podcast? Playing cornhole? Doubling down on thought leadership or band practice? Digitally detoxing? Those promotional e-mails from Seamless don’t delete themselves, you know! The answer to this question is rarely answered by a busyboy, and more often delivered by a close friend: speculating or dwelling on it is probably not worth your own precious time.

There’s something satisfying about enrobing a phenomenon with exacting language. Better yet, affixed with a gerund, the busyboy glides into verb territory as smoothly as socks across a polished floor in Risky Business. The act of ambivalent filibustering over text message in the 21st century finally has its entry, ready for the Oxford English Dictionary. While the term presents as gendered at first blush, it’s mostly by virtue of its alliterative bounciness from one syllable to the next.

Lea found a captive audience in me, as a recent initiate to the universe of dating, the free marketplace of courtship. Regaling her tales of busyboys past, Lea took on the quality of a sage as I eased back into this complicated arena of unspoken dynamics that I hadn’t experienced in six or so years, back when Tinder was in its infancy. I didn’t have much time to heed Lea’s warning, however, as dating went the way of the woolly mammoth a week later.

This story was originally slated to run in mid-March, and then the pandemic rendered it irrelevant. Experiencing a shelter-in-place order for the first time knocked the wind out of our existing conception of busyness. Now, as we enter a new and muddy period of fluxantine, it seems that the busyboys are beginning to emerge from their burrows and creep back into the mix. Is your local busyboy back in business? If not, maybe they are using their emotional and logistical unavailability for the greater good of humanity, in the name of public health, but somehow I doubt it.

When someone tells you they’re busy, it’s kind of a conversation bomb. It feels weird to pry about what’s occupying them.

I’m of the mind that there are always two sides to a story, so I reached out to a few acquaintances who agreed to answer questions anonymously. One respondent, we’ll call him Roland, described his particular approach to the term “busy” in the field of dating.

“I have not played the busy card to someone I was genuinely interested in… I don’t think it sets a very inviting path,” Roland tells me. “I’m actually more likely to hide how busy I actually am if I’m excited to see someone.” He pauses. “I’ve definitely used ‘busy’ to slow things down.” I asked Roland for clarification here: if he’s implemented the busy card to slow things down with the intention of letting something coast for a bit—or with the end goal of eventually grinding the conversation to a halt. He meant the latter. Roland reflected on how invoking busyness is a kind of linguistic tactic: “When someone tells you they’re busy, it’s kind of a conversation bomb,” he says. “It feels weird to pry about what’s occupying them.”

I spoke with another contact, “Sylvester,” known in his circles for his high emotional intelligence and his insistence on open, transparent lanes of conscientious communication. When posed the problem of the busyboy, Sylvester jokes: “If he says he’s busy, he ain’t wrong—he’s really busy not liking you. Working very hard, tireless hours, at not thinking about you much at all.”

Sylvester is a busy person, but not a busyboy. He doesn’t lean on the blanket term of “busyness” in his dating life, despite having a demanding full-time job and a series of other creative pursuits that take up much of his attention outside the office. “If I like the person, then I explain what it is I have to do and suggest a new time where we get to see each other,” Sylvester tells me. “If I don’t like the person or don’t want to see them, I say that I have something specific so I can’t see them, and then respond less and less until they stop texting me. If they are really interested, then I’m just straight up with them and say I didn’t feel like we’re the right match, or that I met someone else—whatever it was that made me not want to see them,” he explains. “I’m a paragon, if you will, of being straightforward about my good or bad news.”

Graphics by Lorenza Centi.

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