The Benefits of Time and Distance
Is adding Distance always a bad thing, though? Maybe not. Physical, Temporal, Conceptual, and Reactive Distance can be our allies, when we’re negotiating the increasingly complicated world. Few of us like being taken by surprise, especially when the stakes are high or there’s danger involved. So, you step back from a stranger who suddenly appears in your path. You pause – or stall – to make sense of something they said or something you noticed about them that doesn’t make sense to you right away. You may know you “have a ways to go” in order to make up your mind about an important career change. So you delay your decision, until you have more information. That adds time. It distances you from your final “destination” of completion or understanding or reaction. But increasing Physical and Temporal Distance (stepping back and pausing) can help shorten your Conceptual and Reactive Distance, enabling you to A) get clear about what’s happening, B) figure out how you’re going to respond, and C) respond in a way that suits you best. Sometimes a delay can actually speed up your ultimate reaction – and also let you do it more deliberately, so you waste less time on do-overs.
Far from being something which divides people in a negative way, adding separation between yourself and others can actually help you connect more effectively with them, than you would if you were to simply leap without looking. For example, if a new neighbor suddenly shows up in front of you while you’re unpacking the moving truck, and you don’t stop to assess the situation, the conversation can take a wrong turn quickly. If you just start talking about only what you’re thinking about at that moment – how heavy the box is, how much your back hurts, or when that recruiter will return your call – your neighbor may think you’re an over-sharing narcissist. If, however, you pause to give yourself time to adjust, and you spend the time and effort to understand what your neighbor wants to talk about, you can adjust in ways that are socially appropriate and consistent with their expectations. Plus, you don’t look like a self-absorbed whiner.
In many cases, of course, temporal and distances between people can push them apart. Never talking to your coworkers is not the kind of thing that supports group cohesiveness. At least, not in the entire group. It may enhance the cohesiveness of the other people who talk about things you don’t care about, but it doesn’t make you a more valued team member. If someone comes up to you and starts talking about something, and you stay silent for no apparent reason, that can be off-putting. It can separate you even more than you were before.
Conceptual Distance, especially, can get us in trouble, if we don’t take care with how we cross it. We can jump to conclusions about mysterious others and we fill in missing details with our own suspicions based on what we think, rather than what truly is. People are notoriously inconsistent at interpreting what’s really going on, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it. Someone unfamiliar may come up to you, and you back off momentarily so you can get your bearings and figure out how to act or talk to them correctly. But when they see you pull back, they may think you don’t want to engage with them at all. You may really be trying to figure out how to handle the situation right, but they may take it the wrong way. If they’ve have had lots of other people pull back out of fear, hatred, or bigotry, they could easily assume that you’re doing exactly the same thing as those other people – and for all the same reasons. They’re “bridging” their Conceptual Distance about what your behavior means, mistaking your intention to be appropriate as immediate rejection… and then reacting to that interpretation, rather than the reality of the situation.
This is just one example of our Conceptual Distance backfiring. It happens all the time in many different ways, especially in uncertain social situations.
But while separation and divisiveness – and the Othering we discussed earlier – can feel off-putting and hurtful, the fact remains that separation is a normal, built-in part of our lives. And we are naturally inclined to creatively work with distance between ourselves and our surroundings. Introducing distance between ourselves and our environment isn’t always a sign of alienation and divisiveness. In some cases, it’s actually done in the interest of connecting more effectively with a person, situation, or thing.
Ultimately, separation lies at the heart of our human experience. Physical, Temporal, Conceptual, and Reactive Distances are all facts of life. And they are at constant play in our lives, in an extended series of back-and-forth exchanges between us, others, and the world at large. That interplay fills in the gaps and takes time in its extended process, as smaller “chunks” of not-knowing distance are crossed, more information is gathered, more complete considerations come up, and the ongoing process builds to a final result.
Whether we like it or not, nothing is as close as it seems. We do unconsciously realize it, however, for the language of separation is woven throughout the ways we describe how we relate to the world. We’re “not even close” to understanding something. When we’re introverted, people consider us “distant”. When something is happening in the future, we say it’s “a ways off”. Distance is an undeniably central aspect of our makeup, something which we both embrace and work to overcome in our own individual ways.
And we can choose to work with it any way we like.