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Work culture is not just about how busy you are. It’s also about how busy people are supposed to think you are. And this can get confusing, because in some places the two are not correlated.

It took me years to figure this out, because I – like most people – lived and worked in a part of the country where people were expected to seem roughly as busy as they really were. My first jobs were in and around Boston, a well-educated, professional town, where people generally worked hard during the week and then enjoyed themselves on the weekends. It probably helped that Boston is a big sports town; no one could criticize you for spending time at Fenway Park or the Boston Garden when you might have been working. Washington, D.C., on the other hand, is much higher up the spectrum for both how hard people work and how hard people feel they have to seem like they are working – even higher than New York City. They are both very competitive towns, but New York also has decent sports teams, and it has Broadway and stellar restaurants, so New Yorkers feel justified in letting their hair down a little more often. D.C. doesn’t have Broadway, but it does have a lot of McDonald’ses and Starbuckses. So working through lunch becomes part of the whole I-work-harder-than-you competition.
Busyness Graph
A lot of big cities fall on the busy end of this correlative function – people there work hard, and it is considered important to be seen as working hard, too. On the other end of correlation are the places where the pace is a lot slower, and where everyone seems to be okay with that. When I worked in Naples, in Southwest Florida, that was my experience. That was understandable. First, there was the constant heat, which seemed to slow people down as if the rubber soles of their sandals were sticking to the asphalt. Second, there was a huge population of retirees, all of whom had moved down to Florida for the very purpose of not working hard any more. Even if you didn’t believe that their collective psychic auras weren’t somehow affecting the general population, it didn’t take long, in an environment where people were driving 50 m.p.h. in the fast lane and waiting in line for two hours for dinner in a restaurant, to get the message that things just weren’t going to get done today, and that everyone was okay with that.

On the other hand, the opposite coast – Miami and environs in Southeast Florida – is one of those less common areas where actual busyness and apparent busyness don’t coincide so neatly. Miami’s a proper city, with international business connections, so the hustle and bustle there is a little more like what I was used to in Boston. However, Miami is still also a touristy destination, with sand and surf and a reputation for fun it has to maintain. Plus, it’s just as hot in Miami as in Naples, and only somewhat less retired. So, while folks in Miami don’t exactly try to hide how hard they are working, they don’t make a big deal about it, either. So it can seem like a less busy place than it really is. Still, the Miamian tendency to downplay diligence is nothing compared to that of Angelenos. Los Angeles is a sprawling, competitive industry town (the “Industry” being entertainment), and people there can be as obsessive about work as anyone on the East Coast. But actually appearing to be busy is almost a social taboo. People will talk dismissively about how slow things are at work, meet you for dinner or drinks in the late afternoon, and then afterwards go back into their offices or work for hours at home so that no one else finds out how busy they really are. And complaining or boasting about how much you have on your plate – which Washingtonians do to build social ties, the way that chimpanzees groom each other – is distasteful in Southern California, as embarrassing as if you had dug into someone’s hair, pulled out a bug, and eaten it.

So it seems to me that Angelenos expend a fair amount of energy pretending they are not as busy as they really are. In contrast were many of the businessmen I met in Tokyo, who seemed to expend a fair amount of energy pretending to be a lot busier than they actually were. Granted, this was in the early 1990s, a boom time for Japan; the economy of the last couple of decades may have changed things. But when I was there, I met a lot of workers who were exhausted all week, and who devoted their weekends to sleep, because during the week they were expected to spend twelve hours a day in the office and then go out with their bosses and co-workers and talk shop for another few hours over dinner and copious amounts of alcohol. They had to keep to those hours and to the appearance of busyness, even though much of the time they spent on “work” was not actually productive.

Where does your work environment fall on this chart? We often consider, when looking at a new job or a new city, how hard we are going to be expected (or allowed) to work there; keep in mind that your corporate or local culture might also have expectations about how busy you should appear to be working.