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The One Word that Can Kill a Friendship

the one word that can kill a friendshipThere’s this word you use all the time. It’s a seemingly harmless word — it’s close to meaningless, really — but it’s slowly, subversively tainting your relationships. Look back over any recent texts and emails you’ve sent to friends. If they look something like this, you’re caught on this word’s lure.

“I’d love to hang out! But I’m really busy.”

“Sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier! I’ve been so busy.”

“What’s going on with me? Just busy as usual!”

You guessed it. The single-word relationship saboteur is “busy.” It’s a word that’s stealthily driving your friends away, and it’s time to eliminate it from your social vocabulary.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with actually being busy — people can certainly have many obligations and still maintain great relationships. It’s not being busy that drives people away, it’s the word itself.

Let’s discuss the top three reasons it’s time to be done with “busy,” and three ways to replace it with something better.

  • Everyone is busy.
    In this day and age, saying you’re busy is basically like saying you’re alive. Being busy may once have been an indicator of importance; it may once have implied that many people and projects rely on you. Now, it’s a filler word that can be applied to any situation.

    You could be 10 years into your job and be “busy.” You could be between jobs and be “busy.” You could be vacationing a lot and be “busy.” The word itself no longer relates to any specific, making it basically meaningless.

    And meaningless language is a problem for relationships because it doesn’t help other people understand what, specifically, you’re going through. It actually impedes mutual understanding.

  • It’s open to negative interpretation.
    The vague nature of saying “I’m really busy” leaves the real reason why you’re being unavailable open to interpretation. While many people will accept “being busy” as enough of a reason for not hanging out the first few times you use it, eventually your friends will see it as a veil over a more sinister reason for not hanging out. Maybe you don’t like them anymore and are too afraid to say it.

    In other words, “busy” allows others to fill in the blank of your true intentions. Often, they will fill in the blank with something negative. In a worst-case scenario, friends may feel like “being busy” is a way of blowing them off without having to state a reason for doing so.

  • It’s a “not right now.”
    Oftentimes, “being busy” simply means that you have higher priorities right now than seeing friends, which is totally fine. You may be caring for a child or launching a new product; there are lots of legitimate reasons why friendships fall down one’s list of priorities. The issue is that “ being busy” doesn’t communicate any of that.

    In one of my previous posts, 5 Phrases That Can Kill a Relationship, I say that the phrase “not right now” is a relationship killer because it fosters a feeling of rejection. “Busy” is the friendship equivalent of “not right now.” It lacks a sense of caring about the other person and fosters distance as a result.

That being said, just because “busy” is not a word that generates closeness, that doesn’t mean you can’t communicate the same thing in a way that does generate closeness. Here are some tips for telling your friends you can’t right now without hurting their feelings:

  • Be specific.
    There’s an easy way to eliminate the vagueness of “busy” and that’s by telling your friends specifically what you’re busy doing. Of course, being specific takes a bit more of your time and effort — something that can be challenging when you’re really swamped. But it’s worth doing because the difference in how the message is received is significant.

    Let’s say you invite a friend to your birthday party and she writes back, “I’d love to but I’m really busy!” Alternatively, she writes back, “I’d love to but Jack has karate that evening and he specifically asked me to watch him this time. Have some champagne for me, though!”

    Feel the difference? The second message explains your friend’s reasoning, gives context, and communicates that she’s still invested in your happiness. The first message, frankly, is a rejection.

  • Set a timeframe.
    If you’re busy because of an especially difficult crunch time either at work or at home, it’s helpful to make your friends aware of how long this “busy” time will last. For example, if you know your product will launch in a month and your schedule will open up soon thereafter, communicate your desire to reconnect with everyone then.

    Even if the product slips and the month turns into two, your friends will appreciate that you expressed a desire to be together again as soon as you can.

  • Determine if you need to have a difficult conversation.
    And now, it’s time to confront the dark side of “busy.” As we all know, “being busy” can be a method by which we disengage from a relationship we no longer want to have. The kids call it “ghosting” — distancing yourself from a relationship without ever explaining why.

    If you’re using “busy” in this way, it’s worth determining if you need to have that difficult conversation with the person you’re ghosting. While it’s always uncomfortable to break up with a friend, some friendships deserve this attention. In some cases, it’ll cause great sadness to both parties to “busy” a friendship to death.

Try saying goodbye to “busy” and see what happens!

© Kira Asatryan.

Guy with two phones photo available from Shutterstock

The One Word that Can Kill a Friendship

Kira Asatryan

Kira Asatryan is a certified relationship coach and author of Stop Being Lonely: Three Simple Steps to Developing Close Friendships and Deep Relationships. She is a popular blogger on Psychology Today, YourTango, and Elite Daily. She writes about loneliness, relationships, and technology.

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APA Reference
Asatryan, K. (2018). The One Word that Can Kill a Friendship. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 6 Feb 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.