Monday, 18 May 2020

The Language of Time

Stop and think. When were you last free from the worry of time passing? If you spend an hour daydreaming, you are wasting time. If your order takes too long in a restaurant, they are wasting your time. Did you sleep in? You have wasted the day! 
We also have a concept of who owns time, such as “do that in your own time!” Or doing things in “free time”.  
Even the idea that we have to stop in order to think gives us a clue. We are trying to live our lives at a speed which is too fast to even think.
The pressure of time is all around us. From an early age we have to be on time – nursery, school, lectures, and then work. Our language, and our culture, reinforces those beliefs all the time. 
What if we lived in a world without that pressure? What if our language did not reinforce the belief that time is well spent, or badly spent? What if ….
It turns out that there is a language that does express life as if everything is done to the beat of a drum. The Amondawa language[i], spoken by tribes in the Amazonian forest in Brazil, does not slice time into units, like hours or minutes, but into events. Instead of noon, there is the time to eat the mid-day meal. There is also something similar in the Chinese language – the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. 
I once read about ancient Aztecs using the cooking time of a potato[ii] as a unit of time measurement. They certainly ate potatoes, but their potatoes, in common with ours, would have varied in size. And the time they take to cook will vary with altitude. But maybe the time period was accurate enough for their needs. Or maybe the story is plain wrong. I don’t know but using time periods that are “accurate enough” is an interesting philosophical idea.
This argument does not just apply to ancient civilisations. Consider the time period used to measure sales in business. Measure sales monthly, and you shorten the sales cycle because salespeople are trying to close sales and get the credit before month end. Measure sales quarterly and the sales cycle is lengthened, for the same reason.
But how much influence does a salesperson have over the customer? Do they make their minds up at the speed that suits their business, not the seller’s? If you increase the pressure with a shorter sales cycle, you might risk more people cancelling after they have agreed. At the very least it is worth measuring.
What if you want a sales period that is not a month and is not a quarter? That is, we have no ready-made language for it, and no ready-made time unit, but it suits your business. This is not an esoteric point. Managing the sales cycle, giving enough time for each stage, and booking only solid business is beneficial to buyer and seller. 
The language of time has more influence over our actions than we are necessarily conscious of. Making our lives, and our businesses, fit within constructs that do not necessarily work for us may be more detrimental than we realise. 
We are living through strange times. Many notions that seemed immovable have moved. Like going into the office every day. Like putting up with the daily commute. Questioning our actions and questioning our language, could result in some interesting answers.

[i] Da Silva Sinha, Vera – Event-based Time in Three Indigenous Amazonian and Xinguan Cultures and Languages – 18 March 2019


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