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A Matter of Time

A Matter of Time


Imagine you get this message:

“Next Wednesday’s meeting has been pushed forward one day.”

What day is the meeting happening?

It’s obvious, isn’t it? Of course it goes without saying that the meeting is on. . .Tuesday? Thursday? In fact, if you ask around, you’ll find that roughly as many people choose one as the other. You’ll also find people expressing frank amazement that the other choice is even conceivable.

And while it may seem like a simple matter of linguistics, the choice you make here says something about how you see yourself in relation to time.

If you chose Tuesday, you opted for what psychologists call the time-moving metaphor: You see yourself as standing still, with time flowing at you as a moving conveyer belt of days. For Tuesday people, pushing a meeting forward means advancing it on the conveyer belt, hastening its arrival.

If you chose Thursday, you were relying on what’s called the ego-moving metaphor: You see time as stationary and yourself as moving, marching forward on a static timeline into the future. To Thursday people, pushing a meeting forward means pushing it forward on the timeline, into the future.

It’s well known that visual and verbal metaphors for time vary across cultures and personal histories. But while exploring this Tuesday/Thursday divide, researchers discovered something interesting: Your choice can also vary depending on your immediate circumstances, including your mood.

When people are feeling angry, they’re more likely to choose Thursday, the ego-moving metaphor. People on the go—for example, on a moving train or disembarking from a plane—are also more likely to give the more active Thursday response. But people who are waiting—say, to buy a sandwich or board a plane—are more likely to give the more passive Tuesday response.

Who’s right? We’ll discuss that at next week’s meeting. On Tuesday. Or Thursday. See you then.