Aspirational Tense: “I most definitely am, I hope”
The relationship between reality and interpretation is always tenuous. Who’s to say what’s real? There is no simple formula to ensure that an interpretation matches reality—and besides, if there were one, we’d be ambivalent about using it. Our impressions bob and weave around our reality. Reality delivers a right uppercut and our impressions slide out of the way.
We’re slippery—but not always in a bad way. Weaving has both positive and negative consequences, and it’s the consequences that count. Sometimes we ignore reality long enough to make our finest dreams come true. Sometimes we ignore it with nightmarish outcomes.
It pays, therefore, to know the common species of speciousness, to be able to identify the common ways we weave and dodge out of harsh reality’s way. One of the most common ways depends on the dubious but persistent assumption that intentions are as good as actions.
“I’m not being critical, but . . . ”
“I meant to be here on time.”
“I had no intention of slighting you.”
“I don’t mean to be unkind . . . ”
We use such declarations as magical incantations, hoping that our proclamations of intent will transform the behavior, or at least convince ourselves and others that the behavior was different from what it was.
We hope. We hope our hopes will help make our dreams come true. No, actually we really hope our hopes are by themselves enough to make them true, or short of that, that declaring our hopes with conviction—stating them aloud to others—will make them true.
I call it “speaking in the aspirational tense,” or actually “tenses,” since there are three.
There’s the present aspirational—for example, saying, “I’m not the type to play games,” in the hope that present game-playing behavior will go unnoticed. There’s the past aspirational—for example, saying, “I had no intention of manipulating you,” when someone complains about attempts at manipulation. And there’s the future aspirational—for example, saying, “I’m sick of smoking. I’m so done with it,” as a way to bolster future behavior.
The aspirational tenses rest on two false assumptions. First, that intentions determine behavior, and second, that we ever have just one intention.
On the first score, of course, intentions can shape behavior and often do. It’s no wonder declared intentions turn out to be a somewhat reliable guide to behavior. Still, what people say often has undue influence on our estimations of their actions—in part, I suspect, because it’s so much easier to take someone’s word than to track their actual behavior. Compare the cost of verifying through vigilance that someone isn’t drinking to the cost of verifying it through their pledges. To be vigilant would mean watching them all the time, causing conflict in the process. Accepting someone’s word takes only seconds and is so much more polite.
The second false assumption also may be one we subscribe to not so much because it’s accurate as because it’s convenient. None of us ever does anything for just one reason, and yet we’re willing to believe people when they say, “I was only trying to help” (see Youjustifications). It’s hard to read people’s minds, and it’s next to impossible to keep track of the multitude of motives that in the aggregate drive their behavior. We prefer to collapse bundles of motives into simple singular drives. It’s just easier. But assuming such simplicity does dull our attunement to what really makes people click.
So sure, he doesn’t mean to be critical, but he also doesn’t mean to give in, to lose an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s right. He doesn’t mean to spare you useful feedback, he doesn’t mean to lower his standards. Obviously if what follows his declaration that he doesn’t mean to be critical is a criticism, in the overall balance he wanted a variety of things, one of the consequences of which was his being critical. And you don’t mean to be critical either, but he’s just wrong when he thinks that saying he doesn’t mean to be critical suggests that he isn’t being critical.
The relationship between intentions and actions isn’t so simple that a declaration makes it so. We can wholeheartedly wish to behave one way but end up behaving another way entirely. More typically, we can have multiple conflicting wishes—for example, both to be critical and to not appear critical—and hope that by declaring only one of our multiple motives we eliminate all others, or at least all impressions of others.
The effect of this slippery move can be good. Someone can read in our declared intentions our best intentions and focus on them. “Sure, he was critical, but he didn’t want to be. And besides his criticism has merit. ”
It can also, of course, be bad. It can be equivalent to saying, “I’m being hypocritical and hereby declare that it’s not my problem, it’s yours.” or “Just believe my lie. Swallow it ’cause there’s no way I’m going to admit to a realistic description of my behavior.” Subjected to these talk-is-cheap hedges, we can feel cornered, coerced into humoring someone against our will. It can create distance and ruin rapport.
If you can get away with imposing the burden on others—making them ignore your inconsistencies and humor you—you’ll have more freedom to weave your interpretation away from reality’s blows. That freedom, if exercised responsibly, can provide greater opportunity to realize your more fruitful dreams. If exercised irresponsibly it can provide greater opportunity to realize your counterproductive dreams: “I don’t mean to shoot heroin every night but . . . ”
In a family I once knew, the son had been a terror growing up, physically abusing, bullying, and intimidating his parents and siblings. When he became a man, he settled down a bit, and though family members (especially siblings) were permanently scarred, they didn’t mention the past, so as not to drag the man down. They protected him from harsh reality. Then he joined a Christian fundamentalist church—one of the huge ones that once joined magically sanctifies its members, largely by inviting them to abuse the aspirational tenses. He went on a prideful campaign with his family. “I was a victim of your pathology,” he said in the past aspirational tense. “I now know good families from bad,” he declared in the present aspirational tense. “I don’t mean to be judgmental, but you are all failures by God’s standards,” he said in the future aspirational tense. Rewriting history, he blamed his parents and siblings for everything. They were apoplectic.
When should you call people on their inconsistencies? In effect, that means holding them down long enough for reality to hit. Not too soon or it will crush their aspirations. Not too late or they’ll invest in dangerous delusion. And when should you do the same for yourself? That is, hold yourself down or allow others to hold you down until you’re accountable to reality? These are taxing but real questions every time they come up.