If a train leaves New York at 9 am travelling at 60 miles an hour, at what time will it reach Seattle? Who knows? You’ll have to consider time during stops, zone changes, and speed variation, but that’s the difficulty with over simplified math problems. The answer, if you really needed to know, is if you’re able, take a plane and save the headache. At least then, someone could give you an estimated time of arrival.

The topic this week is the use of “time” as a rhetorical device. I’ve been noticing more frequently the use and thought it might help to break down the everyday uses to communicate difficulty, priority, and willingness for action.

Time as Difficulty

“That didn’t take very long did it?”

“If we work together, we can knock it out in no time

“You know, it’s a 4-year degree”

“It takes only 1 hour to sign-up”

“But it’ll take me forever to clean this up” (Said the exasperated 5 year old)

Somehow, time has been connected to difficulty and I don’t understand why. The time a task takes is not indicative over the ability to do the task, but merely a data point. The old saying, “it’ll take how long it takes” seems to have been lost, but using time as an indicator either to convince action or soothe emotional turmoil has made “time” into a commodity. Recently, I’ve been asking around for PhD programs. Talking with several academics about the subject of commitment they asked me, “Some programs take 5-years, do you think you can handle that?”. My response, “If I decide that’s the degree I want, would I really have a choice in how long it takes?”. The real difficulty is in performing the tasks associated with the degree.

As a contract writer, I used to be paid for the amount of time to write documents and not for the docs themselves. I charged $50/hour for a blog post that usually took me 2 hours to write. For grant proposals, I could be easily paid $40/hour or a lump sum that equated to the amount of time it was expected for me to complete the proposal (If I went over, I tried not to charge extra, but it’s common in the industry to do so). The amount varied based on the contract, but was usually tied to the perceived difficulty of the writing and the difficulty was always based on the amount of time it took til completion.


Time as Priority

“Sorry, they’re too busy to take your call”

“I’ll make time to see grandma”

“I don’t have the time for that”

“Let me look at my schedule and get back to you”

“Can you spend a bit of time with your brother?”

Priority is another way that time becomes a bargaining commodity, but used in a way that denotes organizing tasks. The very concept of “making”, “spending”, or “owning” time is an oddity, but if every task takes a certain amount of time to complete, then it makes sense that using time as an indicator of priority may be used. For instance, I know that it takes me more than an hour to pump out a relatively sizable blog post, but I still spend a “good” hour every tuesday to write something, anything. Even knowing I won’t have a finished or polished post. Yet, this still makes me want to prioritize the time for blogging. 

Most of the time, stating you’ll “make time” really means that you’ll make a task a priority. Seems like a platitude, but it makes you wonder why people don’t just say “I’ll make it a priority”. The emphasis on “time” as a priority may closely related to difficulty or willingness depending on the context. In any case, there is a difference between an action and willing to do an action.


Time as Willingness

“They won’t give you the light of day

“What do you need? I have all the time in the world”

“I don’t have time for this”

“I’d like to spend some time going over the notes”

“I could do this all day

Using time in a similar fashion as prioritizing, you can use time to show your willingness. This is either to show attitude or boundaries/limitations. Often I notice that when someone says they “don’t have time”, it really means “I don’t want to do this”. Conversely, “no time like the present” is an attitude towards the willingness to complete a task”.

Putting limitations on time can show boundaries. For instance, a “30 minute consultation” from a lawyer is not the amount of time it takes to understand the entirety of a case, but the amount of time the attorney is willing to spend with a person before charging them. A 1hour session from a therapist is constructed so that the client focuses on needs, but also to create a barrier, an expectation, between both parties. The list goes on-and-on, but the next time a product or a service lasts for “X” amount of time you’ll have to ask “why?”.


Closing Time/Conclusion

There are many ways people use “time” as a metaphor to mean a different concept, but that really depends on the context. As a rhetorical device, “time” can be very persuasive, but try to understand what you the rhetor is attempting to accomplish. Are you using “time” to mean “difficult”, when really what you are trying to say is, “I don’t want to”? Or maybe you use “time” to show your eagerness to complete a task quickly, but accidentally create an unreasonable expectation? Maybe you just wanted a boundary, but came across as negative?

However you wish to use the concept of “time” try your best to reiterate needed specifics in the clearest way possible. As always I hope you enjoyed this post and I hope it brings some clarity to your everyday day.