“At first it seemed that they had come by chance, as if driven by the wind, and as if they were coming for a short stay to live more or less the same life as had always been lived here, as though the civil authorities were to prolong for a short time the occupation begun by the army.

But with every month that passed the number of newcomers increased.

However, what astonished the people of the town and filled them with wonder and distrust was not so much their numbers as their immense and incomprehensible plans, their untiring industry and the perseverance with which they proceeded to the realization of those plans.  The newcomers were never at peace; and they allowed no one else to live in peace.  It seemed that they were resolved with their impalpable yet ever more noticeable web of laws, regulations and orders to embrace all forms of life, men, beasts and things, and to change and alter everything, both the outward appearance of the town and the customs and habits of men from the cradle to the grave.

All this they did quietly without many words, without force or provocation, so that a man had nothing to protest about.  If they encountered resistance or lack of understanding, they at once stopped, discussed the matter somewhere out of sight and then changed only the manner and direction of their work, still carrying out whatever was in their minds.”

Ivo Andrić, “The Bridge over the Drina”, 1945

We were chatting with some friends recently about busy-ness; I think, in our age, it’s a topic on the lips of many people, and that must be a good thing because at least we’ve named our addiction, even if we haven’t fully faced it yet.

Our friend John, who recently retired after a career in business and HR coaching, sent me over the text above, which he had in turn received from a colleague in Bosnia after a similar conversation. This colleague lamented the Westernisation of the Balkans in his own lifetime; not because of the economic and technological advances, but because of the huge cultural shift that came with them.

What’s perhaps more startling is that in the text, Ivo Andrić is actually writing of the arrival of the Austrian empire to Bosnia Herzegovina during the occupation at the start of the 20th century – yet it also rings true today.

In missionary-speak, we talked about hot- and cold-cultures. Developing world cultures tend historically to be hot-cultures, where people tend towards communal life, with a gentle pace. When walking around our old stomping ground in West Africa, I would see people sitting in the shade, having a drink and chatting, often for hours.

When I joined in, I often found myself getting bored pretty quickly: but then, coming from a cold-culture, I get fidgety at the dinner table, let alone when intentionally taking a break.

Interestingly, some sociologists consider the island of Ireland a bit of a blip in the hot/cold axis; we’re literally cooler than our friends to the South who have Mediterranean borders, but have tended to lean more hot-culture than others on our longitude (our privacy-loving English neighbours, for instance).

But if much of globalisation really means some kind of colonial spread of Western culture and values, then in come our cold-culture ways where they have not previously existed. And in comes the busy-ness.

John remarked to me that we used to call it ‘Protestant Work Ethic’. I actually don’t agree; I think we’re actually more victims of ‘shadow work’, as described by bloggers Brett & Kate McKay in the fascinating article, ‘Shadow Work and the Rise of Middle-Class Serfdom‘.

And while we were formerly forced to largely work during regular work hours and shop during regular business hours, technology allows us to produce and consume 24/7. We never fully clock out from our “real” jobs, nor do we ever fully take a break from the marketplace. Even when we’re not actively engaging in shadow work, in the back of our mind there’s that ever present niggling: Is there something I need to buy? Is there something going on I should know about? Should I check my phone? We’re always “on” and constantly mentally switching between roles.

Brett & Kate McKay