“Business as usual”

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					“Business as usual”?


I will start with a personal memory:

Once, when I was young I returned home from a one week journey and asked my mother:
“Har det hänt någonting?” (Has anything happened?) My mother’s answer came
promptly and she spoke with a loud voice: “No, thank God, nothing has happened?”

I have not forgotten this episode, although 40 years have passed since our conversation. I
remember myself thinking “Why did she answer like that? Is it good when nothing

Being a folklorist I would like to analyze this small conversation a bit and afterwards
connect it to the cultural environment and our theme of today, “business as usual”.

Two women, the one in her sixties, the other in her twenties, conduct a very short
dialogue on events. The young woman returned from a week abroad whereas the old
woman had stayed at home all time. The young one had had a lot of experiences on her
journey, she had lived in a foreign environment and, in all aspects, she had met with new
things, people, food, shops, well, even the air and the traffic were new to her. The old
woman had experienced her everyday, she went to work along the same path as ever, she
visited the same shops as before, she had the same food, the streets and the traffic were so
well known to her that she hardly had to beware of them when she walked in town. To
her, life had been “business as usual”. To the young woman life had been anything but
“business as usual”.
The young woman’s question was uttered in a curious way, in an expectant way. She was
eager to learn about recent gossip, she wanted to learn every piece of news, she wanted to
be at the same level concerning life at home as all the others were who had not been
abroad. She was happy back home but did not want to miss anything although she had
been away for a week. The old woman was happy that nothing had happened, neither at
home nor with her daughter. She was simply happy that her daughter was safe and sound
back home again. Eager expectancy was met with satisfaction of safety and security, of
the satisfaction of the uneventfulness of everyday routines.

However, I think that not only the fact that the young woman had exposed herself to a
certain risk as a tourist in a foreign country made the old woman answer as she did. The
specific situation of the dialogue is not enough to explain her way of answering the
young woman’s expectant and curious question. I think that we have to take into
consideration the age of the two women, too. Old and young have different expectancies
on life. Young people are eager to explore, to discover and find out, whereas old people
perhaps want their routines and are somewhat reluctant to expose themselves to risks.
Moreover, they have often experienced that nasty and unpleasant things hit them
although they do not even move out of their own home, or although they are not even
near the crucial event. People fall ill, they die, people go bankrupt, get fired, catastrophes
happen all the time. These things are real experiences for a person who has lived for a
long time. And rarely he or she has a real opportunity to intervene, not to mention to
prevent accidents from happening. To stick to “business as usual” is the only thing to do
besi8des feeling grief, compassion or anxiety with and for those suffering.

In my example the question “Has something happened?” means at least two things and
requires two kinds of answers. Firstly, an answerer would state that everything is fine,
routine and safety rule. Secondly, an answerer might express a negative position, saying:
“Unfortunately nothing has happened. It was a boring week being without you”. The way
in which the question is answered is a matter of situation, personal character, and age. In
this specific case, to the old woman, “business” as usual was ideal.
The Concept of “business as usual”

When I have been thinking over this topic, I have tried to define the concept of
““business as usual””. What does it mean? Does it mean routines? Does it mean safety?
Does it mean that nothing really happens? However, I really do question whether it is
possible to make business without anything happening? Would business as routine ever
be profitable?

According to Wiktionary (2.6.2009) the definition of the concept of “business as usual”
is: “The normal course of an activity, particularly in circumstances that are out of the
ordinary.” To me this definition means that things are brought on in an everyday way
although the surroundings might differ from normality. This means that we extend
normality even when normality does not exist. I suggest we do this because “normality”
with its routines, habits and well known manners gives us a feeling of stability and safety.
We have to consider the concepts of normality and abnormality as a pair that is crucial
for our understanding of “business as usual”. My next question would be, then: “What is
a situation with normal circumstances?”


In this connection the concept of everyday seems crucial. Everyday life, everyday
routines are at least very near normality. Everyday life goes on and on without variation.
According to Komrad Köstlin, the everyday life surrounds us like water surrounds the
fish (Köstlin 2006: 21). We do the same things in the same order every day. For instance,
we get out of bed at half past six. We have our morning tea with two sandwiches, the one
with sausage and tomato, the other with cheese and cucumber, and we add a bowl of
yoghurt. Take a quick shower, chose a dress, take some make up, and off you go a
quarter to eight every workday morning for thirty five years. Seven hours at your desk,
doing more or less the same all the time, reading, writing, counting. And then back home
for some spare time. The greatest variation is different combinations of sandwich spread
and a choice of blouses or shirts. The spare time on Mondays contains choir singing, on
Tuesdays yoga, on Wednesdays knitting club, and on Thursdays meeting friends in a
café. Forty-eight weeks a year. The week ends have their own patterns with cleaning,
shopping, washing, ironing, and in Finland a Friday evening sauna. This regular life style
is very sound, especially if you add some training here and there.

A pattern such as this one is quite common. In Denmark the National museum asked the
Danish people to describe what they did on September 2, 1992. More than fifty thousand
diaries were sent to the museum filled with reports of daily life in Denmark at that very
day. Interestingly enough the structure of both the days and the narratives were very
much alike, the narratives were even more consequent than the course of the day. They
varied a little along the age of the informants. We can see that not only the societal
prerequisites for how to arrange one’s life are culturally bound, but also the way people
tell about their days. (Dagbogen 1993) There is a corresponding investigation concerning
Norway (Dagbok 1997).

Weekdays have different values. Provided you have a clerical work and provided you
have been working for some thirty years, there is a definite difference between a Monday
morning and a Friday evening. Everyday life is not always the same, for human beings
relate themselves differently to different days and different tasks. Therefore, the
expression “business as usual”, just like all other expressions must be interpreted in
different ways, according to their context. If on a Monday morning I ask a person how
things are and he answers “thank you, just “business as usual” I think he means that he
goes to the same kind of routines and the same sorts of problems that engaged him the
week before. However, if I ask him that question on a Saturday morning he might mean
that he goes fishing, for that is his favorite hobby. He might even mean that he is going to
sell his fish.

Everyday life is regarded as regular, well known, perhaps boring. Nobody expects any
exceptions or surprises. This might be a dream of a person who experienced a lot of stress
or tribulation. The good thing is that one does not have to dissemble. In a good everyday
environment one is said to be allowed to show oneself without limitations or
precautionary measure. You can do your “business as usual” without being afraid of
failing or being criticized. Change and variety must be created by yourself. You can
enjoy yourself by buying a ticket to the movies, or a concert or treating yourself to a nice
meal with an expensive wine, or why not call a friend for a chat. However, this should
not be done too often, otherwise this treatment of your self gives rise to returning
demands and results in yet another kind of “business as usual”.

However, I do not think that our everyday life is that regular. All the time we have to
make decisions. We have to decide whether we shall rise at all or stay in bed and tell our
colleagues that we are sick, we have to decide what dress we should pick, when the tea is
strong enough, how to cross the streets. We also make a lot of decisions in our work.
Decision making can be one of the characteristics of our work. This cannot be done only
by routine. This cannot be regarded as “business as usual”.

Ethnology and the study of everyday life

We know quite a lot about the things that people do when they lead their everyday lives.
Ethnologists – and in Finland also folklore scholars – are the experts of how to study
everyday life. A folklorist’s starting point is that everyday life is a cultural product of
people’s routines, fears, dreams, or hopes and ideals. Here I have to state that in Sweden,
the country from which I will take several examples for this speech, one does not make
any difference between folkloristics and ethnology, both disciplines are ranged within the
discipline of ethnology, whereas in Finland they are two completely separated
disciplines. Therefore, when I here speak about ethnology I mean both ethnology and

Everyday life is repetitive, “business as usual” contains a perspective of repetition. “As
usual” is repetitive. Through repetition everyday life is also foreseeable, and
recognizable. If everyday life suddenly would not be “business as usual” many an
individual would feel unsafe and uneasy.
However, everyday life is also difficult to grasp just because it is so everyday, it is so
non-remarkable. We see it very obviously in the world of museums. When did you last
see an exhibition that showed a one room flat in which father, mother, grandmother and
eight children just left for school and work? Or a room of a teen aged boy with his bed
unmade, his clothes, clean and dirty, mixed in a heap on the floor, a half eaten sandwich
on the table together with his last certificate from school, a twenty euro note, and a non
closed tube of glue? Museums want to give a realistic image of everyday life. What we
see is anything else!

In 1918, when he invited his colleagues to ethnological research, the Swedish ethnologist
Nils Lithberg wrote in an article: “Don’t even overlook a trifle, be it as everyday as you
can ever imagine” (Ehn & Löfgren 1996: 78). He continued a way of thinking that we
find with the Finnish historian and one of the founding fathers of Finland Swedish
folklore studies, Johan Oscar Immanuel Rancken when in 1844 he asked the readers of
the newspaper Ilmarinen to gather evidence for folk culture and pointed out that there
would be not even the tiniest detail which would not be of any interest for future research
in that field (Rancken 1844: XXX).

In ethnology and folklore studies the topic of everyday life research is very much
appreciated. Work routines, ways of building houses, methods for fishing and hunting,
tools and furnishing, you name it were objects for research. All kinds of processes
connected with everyday life, mainly in rural societies were studied in detail. Along with
changes in society and with new perspectives of ethnology and folkloristics new fields of
interest came to the fore, now in contemporary society. However, the anonymous
common citizens and their ways of living were still in focus. By the inspiration from the
USA, Great Britain and Central Europe, Orvar Löfgren and Billy Ehn, two Swedish
ethnologists, developed a specific method called kulturanalys to be able to analyze their
own culture in other ways than looking for historical roots, diffusion or original forms
and functions (Ehn & Löfgren 1982). (Kulturanalys is something different from the
British concept of Cultural analysis.) Kulturanalys is a constructivist way of working.
Looking for meanings and methods of interpretation are central characterstics. On the one
hand kulturanalys leads to deconstructivism, on the other it promotes perspectives onto
the scholars’ surroundings that make the students strangers at home. The scholars making
use of this perspective maintain that the so called homeblindness is the worst enemy to
scholarly research. Our own environment is so well known to us that we cannot see what
meanings it contains. A stranger would see them and be astonished just in the same way
as we react in a surprised way to what we experience as strange things abroad. Löfgren
and Ehn tell us to try to turn the world upside down and ask questions to the object of
research from that perspective. They ask us to create problems out of so to say self
evident phenomena. The tell us to think “as if”: “What happens if I look upon a class
room as if it were a battle field?”, “What happens if I regard the devil as if he were a
good god?” Power perspectives are important. Reflexivity is crucial, for the scholar is
also the creator of the material that he or she will analyze, interpret, and describe.
Therefore, ethical matters are central. It is always a problem how in a just way to re-
present what people have done.

Everyday life is the object of research within the disciplines of ethnology and
folkloristics. However, hardly anybody of the most influential scholars questioned this
concept. Mats Lindqvist, however, tried to investigate it by the help of Karel Kosiks
thoughts about praxis. Mats Lindqvist, is but one of many contemporary Nordic
ethnologists (folklorists) who were raised at universities which were strongly influenced
by the events of 1968, and therefore changed the perspective of folkloristics and
ethnology from the viewpoint of a university expert from above upon a less educated
farming society into the perspective of a member of society co-operating with an equal
member of society.

In the background to his study Lindqvist maintains that ethnology is the discipline of
everyday life, and he demonstrates how most of his colleagues generally certainly
seriously studied “sensual, cosy, and concrete” issues but that this perspective entailed
monotony and regularity, “a sphere in which it is easier to study tradition and
incorporation than innovation” (Lindqvist 1988: 37). Lindqvist starts by mentioning that
within philosophy the concept of everyday was studied by Sartre, Kierkegaard,
Heidegger and several more. Everyday life is regarded as the general life around a
person, as an opposite to private thoughts and aims, or as ordinary life shared by
everybody else in a society (Heidegger speaks about “man”, the most general pronoun in
the German language: “man” hat das und das heute, “man” tut das so und so, and so
forth). According to another Swedish ethnologist, Karl-Olov Arnstberg, here interpreted
according to the reading of Lindqvist, everyday is one of those images along which we
create our world, an image that only exists in our heads (Lindqvist 1988: 40-41).

However, there are also more firm attempts to regard everyday. Ágnes Heller maintains
that everyday is defined by particular activities, i.e., activities we do for ourselves or our
loved ones, whereas non-everyday activities are directed towards universe or at least all
human beings. In Lindqvist’s article there is a nice quotation from a study by Horace
Engdahl: “If Thomas Mann cleans the plug-hole it is an everyday activity even if he does
it just once in his entire life time. If he writes five pages of a novel it is a universal non-
everyday activity even if this happens every day. The book is meant for humanity.”
(According to Lindqvist 1988: 43). The plug-hole, however, is no matter for anybody else
than Mann and his household. Karel Kosik, however, leaves these dialectic patterns of
everyday being something opposite to something else, when he declares that praxis is the
decisive factor in life. Praxis is doing, activity, and praxis belongs to human life. By
praxis human beings create their lives in all their various aspects. Hierarchical
classification of praxis activities is nothing central in Kosiks view. He would not say that
this kind of life is everyday life, whereas that kind is not. But central to Kosik is that in
life there are some forms of praxis that are authentic and that one should find. This
happens through distance, existential modification and revolution. Distance and
existential modification take us closer to everyday life, says Lindqvist (1988: 45) whereas
revolution results in changes. In this way Kosik does not approve of an everyday,
monotonous, boring life style and another life style filled with culture and special
experiences. Kosik seems to be a representative of the anthropological way of regarding
culture as an ongoing conglomerate of processes of more or less, mostly less, conscious
agreements on how to understand the world, for, according to Lindqvist, he states that
culture is praxis. Therefore, what is everyday life to one isn’t to the other (Lindqvist
1999: 46). Again I refer to Thomas Mann and the plug-hole: the hierarchically less
valued activity can be seen as an everyday activity just as well as the writing of a world
famous novel and vice versa.

By the help of Kosik’s thoughts in Lindqvist’s interpretation it is easier to understand
how it comes that the concepts of “business as usual” and everyday can be filled with
very miscellaneous contents. Cultural praxis allows for unlimited variation in
determining what “business as usual” is, in interpreting what is “business as usual” and in
reacting to everyday life in a business-as-usual way.

In fact, whilst we act in such a routine way our minds are far away. Billy Ehn and Orvar
Löfgren conducted an investigation about what people were thinking of wile standing in a
queue or waiting for the bus or otherwise “doing nothing”, such as we often do in our
everyday life (Ehn & Löfgren 2007). It turned out that they hardly at all were present in
their minds. They had a lot of fantasies, they were in foreign countries, together with
wonderful people, many had upsetting sexual fantasies, others thought of what to serve
for dinner on Sunday. When life looked as “business as usual” or as everyday life,
people’s minds experienced anything but everyday life or “business as usual”.

Or, the other way round, to a normal everyday life do in fact all kinds of escapes belong.
Today, we live in a world of experiences. Experience industry brings quite a lot of money
to private undertakers and societies who arrange them. An experience should be
something different from everyday life. It should be intensive, concentrated. Experiences
underline the participants’ outsidership and test their endurance. No matter if you go on a
trip to see exotic flowers or meet with wild animals or engage in parachute or bungy
jumping, as a person not used to these kinds of activities you are an outsider. To look at
beautiful flowers in a country far away is combined with the thrill of danger that you can
feel in a foreign country with a different climate and all sorts of new bacteria or small
creeping things to which you expose your body. To watch flowers in a neighboring
country is not necessarily dangerous, or a challenge, but the journey itself may be a risk.
Your mental peace, your everyday routines are disturbed. Not to speak about the distress
you fell when dealing with wild predators, or high jumps.

Interestingly enough it is not regarded an experience to go to the nearest shop to buy a
liter of milk and five tomatoes. However, this is not either a self evident truth. For some
people this might be quite as big an experience as the ones I mentioned above. A little
child or, for instance, who is allowed, for the first time, to cross the street alone, or a
person who has stayed for months in a hospital and now has got the opportunity to walk
to the shop probably enjoys it very much. However, he might also be shocked by the
insight of how weak he became at hospital or sad in remembering all those good years
when a walk was not a problematic issue in his life. Even the most everyday activity can
be an experience if the person who has it finds it an experience. Activities that for most
people are “business as usual” can for others be a great experience.

Strictly, “business as usual” is by definition an experience. If “business as usual” mainly
refers to things going on normally under not normal conditions it is an experience to try
to stick to normal routines although the surroundings are falling down. There are many
stories from war time about people trying to keep up standards with, for instance, white
napkins or dressing up for dinner although the food on their plates perhaps consists of
porridge or otherwise a very simple dish. Their recent everyday life is not in line with
normality, although a very different variant of everyday life, sometimes even a parody of
everyday life has turned into normal life. During a war lasting for five years one must
admit that everyday life, normality, is bombs, hunger, ruins. “Business as usual”, in this
case, can be to try and keep up customs from the time of peace. Although bombs fall
around white table cloths have to be washed and rolled.

However man seems to get used to everything. Just think of Nobel Prize Winner Imre
Kertesz’s description of how a boy was put into concentration camp and gradually got
used to whatever happened there. Finally he woke up with a corpse in his bed without
reacting in any specific way. To him the principle of “business as usual” ruled. But the
“business” was definitely not the kind of everyday routines that he experienced in times
of peace.

“Business as usual” is a concept that stands for many different perspectives. I have the
feeling that at a closer investigation the content of the expression vanishes. The is hardly
any such thing as business as usual. Everywhere creativity and problem solving skills are
needed, be it the choice between sausage and cheese under the slice of tomato on a
sandwich or how to cope with life in a concentration camp. Perhaps the deepest meaning
of the expression is to maintain the problem solving skill according to the needs of
society experiencing ongoing changes.


Dagbogen 1993: Dagbogen 2. September 1992. Ed. by Estrid Anker Olsen & Mette
Skougaard. [København,] Danmarks radio & Nationalmuseet.

Dagbok 1997: Dagbok fra en dag i Norge. Ed. Bi Five Magnus. Oslo, Pax.

Ehn, Billy & Löfgren, Orvar 1982: Kulturanalys. Ett etnologiskt perspektiv. Stockholm,
Liber Förlag.

Ehn, Billy & Löfgren, Orvar 1996: Vardagslivets etnologi. Reflektioner kring en
kulturvetenskap. Stockholm, Natur och kultur.

Ehn, Billy & Löfgren, Orvar 2007: När ingenting särskilt händer. Nya kulturanalyser.
Stockholm/Stehag, Brutus Östlings Bokförlag Symposion.
Kertész, Imre 200X: Mannen utan minne

Köstlin, Konrad 2006: Der Alltag als Thema der Europäischen Ethnologie.
Alltagskulturen, hrsg. von Olaf Bockhorn u.a. Wien, Selbstverlag des Vereins für

Lindqvist, Mats 1988: Var dag den andra lik? Häften för kritiska studier 3, 36–48.

Lithberg, Nils citerad hos Ehn & Löfgren, Vardagslivets etnologi. Sök originalet!

Rancken: Sök originalet!

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