Made in Macau | Modern Day Greeting: Busy?

Jenny Lao-Phillips

Jenny Lao-Phillips

There are different things we say when meeting people we know on the street. Among these, the most common greeting used to be “最近好嗎 Zui jin hao ma?” which translates as “Are you well these days?”, similar to “How are you?” or “Como está?”.  So, when people meet on the street, we hear:
“Are you well these days?”
“I’m well. Thank you. And you?” (Said with a smile!)
“I’m very well. Thank you.” (Said with an even bigger smile!)
That is the same as most other cultures in the world, I think, but lately it has been observed that this traditional way of greeting has become outdated. The usual greetings I’ve heard, or eavesdropped, these days have replaced “Hao” (well or good) with “Mang” (busy). Quite a few times a day, whether on the bus, in an elevator, in a restaurant, or on the street, I’ve heard the following conversation when two people meet:
“Are you busy these days?”
“Yes. Very busy. You?” (Said with a sigh!)
“Oh. I’m busier than you.” (Said with an even heavier sigh!)
This made me wonder: since when have we started caring if our acquaintances are busy rather than well or not? More importantly, how does one know if one is busier than the person they meet? Has a normal greeting become a competition of who has a busier life? And will people get offended if one answers, “Not at all”?
I guess this has to do with the perception of success that we have created in modern society. As Macau becomes more and more economically developed, the workforce becomes more aggressive, adopting office mantras such as “Business is War” and “Survival of the Fittest”. These are phrases we have heard in office conversations on Hong Kong or American television programs, but which I never actually heard in real life when I first started working here. Back then, office workers got ready to punch our cards five minutes before we were off work, and called each other to discuss where to go for dinner. Well, group chats were not invented then, the appointment-making process was time-demanding enough to take up an hour or so of our daily lives. But nowadays, workers discuss, or announce, in different Whatsapp or Wechat groups how long they need to stay doing overtime, and who has to work through weekends. Those who can get off work on time wouldn’t dare let anyone know.
It seems like “the fittest” is equivalent to who works the longest hours, and perhaps, who makes the fewest mistakes. As a result, managers are reluctant to empower employees for fear they will be blamed for mistakes made in their departments, or that they may be thought of as not working as hard as their subordinates, and so work becomes redundant. Then, not wanting to actually be made redundant, subordinates spend hours and hours working on tasks they know their managers are going to redo anyway. After that, they have to spend hours and hours writing reports and proposals on what they have done and what they plan to do, from which managers have to write more reports on their teams’ performance for senior management. So, how can anyone who has a job not be busy?
Therefore, the greeting “Are you busy these days?” becomes an invitation to a who-is-busier competition. Not wanting to be seen as “unfit”, leisure becomes a sin.
So, we need to find more things to do, or courses to take, to fill up our schedules. When one manages to fill up every minute of their time, how can anyone else be busier? In the end, it is not really a matter of who has a busier life, but rather who is perceived as the “fittest” in this survival game. Next time, when someone greets you with “Are you busy these days?”, who would dare answer, “Not at all. I don’t have much to do”? Jenny Lao-Phillips


Categories Opinion