The word deadline was first used in 1864, during the American Civil War. In that conflict, prisons were sometimes encircled with a ‘do not cross’ line and guards were told to shoot prisoners who would cross that line.
Today we use the word abundantly and quite mindlessly of its origins. We use it to denote the time when something, a task or project or text, should be finished. The due time. We set and mete out deadlines. We say we agree on them, although there is often one side that agrees more than the other. Sometimes we give deadlines as if they were a present and the receiver should rejoice.
Deadlines add a sense of precision and urgency to a task, a sense of coercion also for the one who is given the deadline. At their hearts, deadlines are meant to be serious, dead serious. Or they pretend to be. Because in reality, no one is going to die if the line is passed. With a little luck, there will be a groan, a sigh, and an acknowledgement that the deadline is now elsewhere, in the future again.
So the one who sets deadlines is exaggerating. As are those who receive the deadline. They are playing a thug’s game, threatening someone with a metaphorical death. Both the giver and the receiver know or pretend to know this is serious business, not to be laughed with, until the very last second, the last inch before the deadline, when it evaporates, is moved, or morphs into a new deadline.
It’s not only deadlines. Or whole professional language is infused with metaphors of violence. We go on bootcamps, set strategies, defend positions, enter into new territory, beat the competition, launch a campaign, use guerilla tactics … As if we were soldiers, as if what we are doing needs the violence to be validated, to be taken seriously. If only we decide on strategies, go on bootcamps, and have deadlines, we are worth our pay and effort, we belong.
The language we use, the domains we reach into to harvest our metaphors help define our identity. They are in a real sense choices we make and acts we commit. To bolster our professional identity, we nowadays often choose and use and copy metaphors of war and conflict and competition. And it’s maybe only when we would use the same metaphors of war in our private life, with our lovers and children, that we would be able to see how inappropriate, inhuman these acts of communication are.
What if we decided, now and here, that we would no longer play along. That we would no longer allow ourselves to be threatened with a metaphorical death, or would no longer coerce others with deadlines. That we would no longer accept the implied violence of the deadline, and with the same token: that we would no longer pass it on to others.
Let’s agree instead on a handshake date, a date we have set with a handshake, a date on which we will again shake hands. Shake hands and look each other in the eye.
Shake hands even if with our best efforts we didn’t finish what we set out to finish on handshake date. In that case, we agree on a new handshake.