Prior research on institutional investors’ role in corporate governance draws a distinction between engaged and disengaged pension funds. The aim of this study was to shed more light on how pension fund practitioners talk about engagement and disengagement. Using insights from 35 in-depth, semi-structured interviews and round-table discussions with pension fund trustees, executives, investment officers and financial intermediaries, we identify different types of vocabularies and temporal perspectives used to account for different stances towards engagement. We highlight a tension between a seemingly causal relationship between accounts and future behaviour and argue that these ‘accounts’, ‘vocabularies’ and ‘uses of the past’ in themselves need to be treated as an object of study because they may represent not simply the individual motivations but rather the expressions of extant norms in the broader social context of financial markets. An important policy implication is that perceived realities of investment are unlikely to cause a change in pension fund behaviour because participants seem to decouple their view of the world from their impact on the world.