What Do You Say When Someone Says They’re Busy at Work?

If someone tells you that they are busy at work, there is only one acceptable response: you must accept what they say. It is up to you how you do this, but since work commitments are non-negotiable, the person who tells you informs you of their unavailability.

This article will take a look at this statement, what it means, why we use it, and how it can be used to communicate a double message.

What is the best way to answer someone when they tell me they’re busy at work?

Your answer to this statement can only be one of acceptance. However, how you communicate it will depend completely on how you interpret their explanation.

Our presence at work and our attention to our work are compulsory, and this means that informing someone that you are busy at work simply means that they are unavailable to you, and they have no choice about it.

You, therefore, can only reply with genuine disappointment, and of course, they may also be feeling the same thing. However, if their answer is intended to avoid something as well as inform you of something, then their response may also contain relief.

This is when your response to them, especially if it is urgent, may sharpen a little. However, there is still nothing you can do because they are referring to a situation that is unavoidable for them.

Should I believe somebody when they tell me that they’re busy at work?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter if you believe them or not, so you may as well give them the benefit of the doubt. And also consider that if they are being a bit creative with their explanation, they may have a good reason for it.

Sometimes we tell someone we’re busy at work, and we actually are! It’s not that the reason is a consistently false one or was devised simply to cover the truth. Because we are all busy at work for most of our time, it stands to reason that this explanation will mostly be true.

What might this explanation really mean?

Telling someone that we’re busy at work is a useful way to detour around our availability and preserve it for something else, while at the same time not offending the other person.

The statement I’m busy at work is a courtesy phrase, and as well as often being true, is also used when we feel that the truth will be unacceptable to someone.

This means that our reason for not being available to be somewhere or to do something might be seen as an excuse and not a valid one. Therefore, we will rephrase the excuse into an actual reason (and a very valid one) and use that instead.

To be busy at work, of course, means we are unavailable, and not only that – we can also imply that we wish this wasn’t so! It is this final touch that can soothe the feelings of the asker and get us off the hook.

When are people most likely to say it?

There are several situations in which we might call on this courtesy phrase to get us out of a tight spot. These range from energy crises to personality clashes.

There is also, of course, the situation when our statement is the truth; we can’t be somewhere, or we can’t do something because we are busy at work.

If this is the case, and being available was never a problem anyway, we usually offer a later time when we are accessible.

The difference between that situation and the following predicaments is that when we are in a predicament, we likely won’t offer our presence or our attention at some other time in the future.

The common feature to most predicaments in which we say I’m sorry, but I’m busy at work right now is that we need to avoid the truth because it is in some way objectionable.

Thus, consider people who are in the following scenarios:

  • They are trying to cut down on the amount of time spent with a certain person.
  • They are avoiding a certain person altogether.
  • They are doing something that they prefer over whatever is being offered.
  • They just don’t want to go somewhere or do something right at that time.
  • They are not well.
  • They are not happy.
  • They are always being called on by that person and are trying to avoid it.
  • They want to complete some other type at work (in the garden) but feel it won’t count as a reasonable excuse.
  • They are doing something else that they would prefer remained private.
  • They are currently having a fight with that person.
  • They are no longer friends with that person.

Why is this statement so useful to so many people?

The use of I’m busy at work is a courtesy phrase. This means we use it to avoid a confrontation or an all-out conflict. Utterances like these, also called sentence softeners, are intensely useful in social situations because they smooth things over and leave each participant as intact as possible.

Imagine if we used the raw and considerably harsher version of the sentence softener. Remember that predicaments which call for this type of reasoning can be intense and sparky even before they have begun.

“I’m sorry, but I’m busy at work at the moment.”

I just don’t want to come.

“Sorry mate – won’t be able to make it. I’m at work today.”

No thanks.

“I wish I could help out, but I’m busy at work, and won’t be home until late.”

I have no interest in coming over at all today.

“I can’t talk now, I’m busy at work, sorry.”

Stop ringing me. I don’t want to talk to you.

“Look, I’m busy at work at the moment.”

Why can’t you just leave me alone?

How do I know if someone is being honest when they say they’re busy?

You can never really know for sure if the other person is being honest. This is why the statement itself is used so often: the other person does not want to cause a situation and they usually don’t want to hurt your feelings.

If the other person does not offer a time and place when they can be available to you, this may be a sign that they aren’t interested in what you’re offering – at any time.

If this is the case, resign with grace, because what else can you really do! The other person is not obligated to offer their time or to even be honest about it.

However, if you feel that someone has told you that they are busy at work once too often and that you are entitled to a little more clarity, you may have to ask them outright if there’s a problem.

If this is the case, be prepared for the answer. If they are honest (which is what you asked for), then you will have to be prepared to accept it.

What might happen if we use this excuse too often?

It’s a really good idea to avoid overuse of this reason for your unavailability. This is because if we use it too many times, nobody will believe it when you are being genuine.

Courtesy phrases are worth looking after. This means don’t blunt them with overuse. If someone, in response to your reason for being unavailable, says, “So you mean you don’t want to do it!”, then this could mean your credibility has worn thin.

Courtesy phrases and sentence softeners are useful; they are good for soothing feelings and moving situations on, but they are no substitute for the truth.

If you are using them too often, examine your ability to be honest. There are times when we must simply face a person and confront the truth – for the sake of both parties.

Failure to do this will leave you stuck in nets of sticky excuses and no integrity when you most need it.

What are some other examples of explanations we use that can contain double meanings?

The following sentences and statements all function to tell the truth and to obscure the truth at the same time:

“I’m so sorry but I’m not feeling well at the moment.”

“Look, something’s come up, and I’m not going to be able to make it.”

“I’m just letting you know that one of the kids is sick, and I’m not going to be able to come.”

“I only just got your message. Wow, I’m sorry, I wish I’d seen it.”

“I didn’t get your message. Are you sure you called me?”

“Sorry, my phone was flat and I didn’t realize.”

“Hey, something’s come up at work, and I’m not going to be able to make it. Please accept my apologies.”

“I’m not feeling up to it. You’ll have to excuse me this time. Sorry.”

Katie

Katie Haynes is a senior author at everyday-courtesy.com with over 15 years of experience in marketing and psychology. As a freelance consultant, she also supports companies and executives in overcoming communication challenges. Katie is a passionate digital nomad working on her first book on the art of communication.

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