If you move a meeting forward, what does that really mean? | Oliver Burkeman

We talk about time in confusing ways – as anyone who’s ever tried to move a meeting with me “forward” a few days will be able to testify. With my dying breath, I’ll maintain that this means moving it into the future, forward along the timeline I picture projecting into the distance from where I’m standing. Yet most people, I have learned, actually think that this means holding the meeting sooner, metaphorically pulling it forward towards them. The Aymara people of the Andes see the future behind them and the past in front; some rural Papuans see the future lying uphill. And a new study from Italy, reported on the Research Digest blog, adds an intriguing detail: it found that Italians who have been blind since birth or early childhood don’t generally conceive of the past as behind them, or the future in front. (No doubt they can talk this way as well as anyone; the study was designed to elicit instinctive associations.) Nor do they think of an event in two months’ time as “closer” than one two months ago. But sighted people do, which makes sense: the space up ahead is in front of our eyes, while the space behind takes effort to see.

All of which is a reminder of how odd it is that we think of time using spatial metaphors at all – indeed, that it seems virtually impossible not to. Ask me about the coming month and I can’t help picturing a sequence of little boxes, like a calendar; ask me what I did yesterday and my eyes shoot upwards, as I consult a “space” somewhere behind my head. Your specific images may not match mine, but anthropologists suggest that the basic metaphor – “time is space” – is a cultural universal. Which is a pity, in a way, because I’m pretty sure it makes our experience of time more anguished than it needs to be.

Take busyness: for me, the feeling of overwhelm is bound up with a sense of time as a physical container, too small for the tasks I need to cram in. (The anthropologist Edward Hall once said that Americans see time as an endless conveyor belt, carrying bottles that must be filled; if one passes by unfilled, time’s been wasted.) When you stop and notice that’s just a metaphor, it’s liberating. There is no container and thus no need to fret about whether it’ll prove big enough. There’s just you, in this moment of time, and all you can do is use it as best you can.

Such metaphors also trick us into thinking we control time more than we do. After all, mortgage notwithstanding, I really do own my physical space; it’s up to me how I use it. But as the blogger David Cain points out, we never really have time: “The time we ‘have’ is never where we are, and we can never see it, unlike anything else we have.” Any number of things might disrupt your plans, and eventually death certainly will. So treating time as if you own it is a recipe for stress.

We probably can’t abandon these metaphors, and besides, they are useful. But it’s worth remembering also that they’re only metaphors. Wouldn’t that be the wisest approach, going forward?

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James Geary’s book I Is An Other looks at how greatly we rely on metaphor to make sense of the world around us – indeed, it even helps determine what we see in the first place.