Time, like everything is relative. It depends on our temperament, our work load, our environment, our relationship to people, our stage in life, our health, and myriad other things. Our perception of time fluctuates throughout the day, week, month, or years. It varies according to topic, people, and circumstance. So while we would like to think that the past is the past and the present is the present, that is not always the case. The past for one person might be the present for another. It might even be perceived as the future for someone else. Talk about confusing! Is it any wonder that our differing perceptions of time can cause such conflict and heated emotions?
Consider the passing of a friend. If that friend is in our lives on a daily basis, then we experience the shock and sorrow very close to the time of death. If that friend is not actively in our lives, we might not hear the news for another month. But when we learn of it, we still experience the loss in the present. In our heart, our friend just died, while to the person telling us, the friend died in the recent past. If years go by before we hear of our friend’s death, we still experience the loss in the present, while the person delivering the information thinks of it in the distant past. Three different perceptions of time concerning one event.
We also experience time differently as we age. Consider the differing perception that a eight-year-old might have about the length of a month as opposed to the way an eighty-year-old might view that same month. To the child, a month is forever! To the grandfather, it passes far too quickly. So what then is meant by “a short while?” A short while to whom?
These differences are especially important in business or anytime that we are working with a collection of people. Why? Because our language and the tenses that we use change according to our personal perception of time. We might use the present tense for something that actually took place months ago, while using the past tense for something that happened this morning. Why? Because we view time differently when we are more involved rather than less, when our livelihood is depending upon a quick result or not, whether we feel pressured or relaxed. The closer we are to a topic or the more effected we are by the result, the longer time feels to us: We sent that email eons ago! We haven’t heard back for TWO days! The resolution won’t happen for a WHOLE MONTH!
Consider a board meeting where an intermediary is presenting a project for a project head who is not attending the meeting.
TO THE BOARD MEMBERS, everything that they are hearing is in the present. They will speak of it in the present tense when they communicate what they have learned to others. They will says things like: “This just happened.” “Mr. Smith just did this.” “Sally just called Joe.” There will be an immediacy to their language.
TO THE INTERMEDIARY, the perception of time can vary in the extreme. An important factor will be whether or not they are closely involved with the project. If they are, then their sense of time will be closer to the person heading the project. If they are not closely involved, their sense of time will depend on their attention to it and their level of distraction from it.
For example: they might have received an email on Monday but not opened it until Friday. Then having read it on Friday, they might have put it away until the following week when they might have more time to absorb it. And if the board meeting is scheduled for the following month, they might forget about it until that time when they will read the information again.
In each these cases, the information continues to feel immediate each time they address it, with very little sense of time passing. Just like experiencing the death of a friend, they will experience this news in the present or very recent past. They’re language will have a sense of immediacy closer to that of the board members, describing events as having “just” happened, or learning of something a “short time ago.”
TO THE PERSON RUNNING THE PROJECT, everything is in the past and the future. They sent the information the day before, last week, last month. They’re waiting for a response tomorrow, next week, next month. They are acutely aware of the timeline that is being jumbled by the intermediary and the board members. To them, a day is long, a week is painful, and a month is endless.
So, why does this matter?
It matters because we make assumptions based on the way we hear information—the choice of words, the modifiers added, and the tense of verbs. We don’t take into consideration that other people before us—like the intermediary and the board members—have also made assumptions. We also don’t take into account that, like the game of telephone, those assumptions—and the warped variations of time-perception—may have altered the facts.
And we all know what they say about assumptions!
So, the next time we feel those emotions rising, let’s take the time to examine time. We may find that there’s no conflict at all.