A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differentlyby Robert Levine
Although it is hard to remember in our clock-driven age, the concept of time is relative and flexible, says celebrated scholar Robert Levine. He points out that a culture's sense of time has profound consequences for an individual's psychological, physical and emotional well-being. Traveling around the globe, in both past and present times, he describes "clock time" in opposition to both "nature time" the rhythm of the sun and the seasons and "event time" the structuring of time around happenings. He argues that by learning to embrace these three different perceptions of time, by developing a "multi-temporal" approach, one can enjoy a more flexible and rewarding life. Written in a charming and graceful prose style and filled with lively anecdotes, The Heartbeat of Culture is one of those rare books that compels readers to re-evaluate their perspective on everyday life and see the world through a completely different lens.
Social psychologist Levine (Calif. State Univ., Fresno) loves anecdotes that illustrate a point, and he packs his report with stories about the frustrations of living in a culture where one is unfamiliar with the rules about waiting, punctuality, and time measurement. As a scientist, though, he employs objective tests to measure these temporal differences. Preceding his look at the pace of life in contemporary cultures, he gives a brief history of clock time that is full of quotable trivia (e.g., in the 1860s the US had some 70 different time zones). Among the factors that Levine says determine tempo of life are economic vitality, industrialization, population size, climate, and a cultural orientation toward individualism. Two questions command his interest: Which are the fastest and slowest cultures, and how does tempo of life affect quality of life? To find answers, he sent teams of researchers around the globe measuring walking speeds, accuracy of public clocks, and work speed, specifically the time required to purchase a postage stamp. The results are fascinating: Of 31 countries studied, Switzerland ranks as the fastest-paced, with other Western European countries and Japan close behind, the US in dead center, and Mexico the slowest. Applying slightly different criteria to US cities, he concludes that Boston is the speediest and L.A. the most relaxed. When he sets up situations designed to measure helping behavior in these same citiesgiving change for a quarter, assisting a handicapped person, etc.those with the most time do not necessarily turn out to be the most generous with it. Some stereotypes hold up: New Yorkers take last place in the civility ranking. Levine concludes with advice for the time-urgent when visiting slower-paced cultures and about taking control of one's own pace of life.
Recommended for all time-pressured type As.
- HarperCollins Publishers
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.81(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.09(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Speed of Life
The question of tempo ... depends not only on the
factors of personal taste and skill but to some extent
upon the individual instrument and the room or hall
involved in the performance.
Chopin: An Introduction to His Piano Works
The pace of life is the flow or movement of time that people experience. It is characterized by rhythms (what is the pattern of work time to down time? is there a regularity to social activities?), by sequences (is it work before play or the other way around?), and by synchronies (to what extent are people and their activities attuned to one another?). But first and foremost, the pace of life is a matter of tempo.
The term "tempo" is borrowed from music theory, where it refers to the rate or speed at which a piece is performed. Musical tempo, like the time of personal experience, is extremely subjective. At the top of virtually every classical score, the composer inserts a nonquantitative tempo mark--largo or adagio to suggest a slow tempo, allegro or presto for fast tempos, accelerando or ritardando for changing tempos. There is even a directive called tempo rubato--literally translated as "stolen time"--which calls for a give-and-take in tempo between the two hands. But unless the composer specifies a metronome setting (which most classical composers did not or could not do, as the metronome was not marketed until 1816), the precise metric translation of the notation is open to widely varying interpretation. Depending on the speed at which the performer sets the metronome, Chopin's Minute Waltz may take up to two minutes to play.
The same is true for human time. We may play the same notes in the same sequence, but there is always that question of tempo. It depends upon the person, the task and the setting. One student may stay up all night to learn the same material that a gifted friend absorbs in an evening. The novelist might wait patiently for his next image, while his fellow writer at the newspaper races from deadline to deadline. Given an hour to spare with their child, one parent uses it to read aloud; another teams up in a demanding video game. My college student cousin travels around Europe for two months while his businessman father hurries across the same route in two weeks.
The speed may be measured over brief and immediate periods of time, as when one experiences rapidly oncoming traffic or an upcoming deadline, or over longer, more sustained intervals, such as when we speak of the accelerating tempo of twentieth-century living. Alvin Toffler, for example, in his popular book Future Shock, addresses the subject of tempo when he speaks of the psychic disruption that is caused by too much change in too short a time. The trauma is not caused by the shock of change per se, but by the rate of change. Whether considered over the short or the long term, and no matter how it is measured, there are vast cultural, historical, and individual differences in the tempo of life.
Time Signatures Around the World
The further East I travel the sloppier the perception of time becomes. It irritates me in Poland and drives me gibbering in the USSR.
Anonymous British traveler
Adjusting to an alien tempo can pose as many difficulties as learning a foreign language. In one particularly telling study of the roots of culture shock, sociologists James Spradley and Mark Phillips asked a group of returning Peace Corps volunteers to rank 33 items as to the amount of cultural adjustment each had required of them. The list included a wide range of items familiar to travel paranoids, such as "the type of food eaten," "personal cleanliness of most people," "the number of people of your own race" and "the general standard of living." But aside from mastering the foreign language, the two greatest difficulties for the volunteers concerned social time: "the general pace of life," followed by one of its most significant components, "how punctual most people are."
Neil Altman was one of these temporally disoriented Peace Corps volunteers. Altman, who is now a clinical psychologist in New York City, served a term as an agricultural consultant in a village in the South of India. "When we first got to India," he recalls, "I used to go to the local horticulture office to get seeds and the like. I'd go into the office of the head guy to request what I wanted, but would find six or eight people sitting around his desk, each person with some business to transact, presumably. I would impatiently state my purpose: `Good morning, Mr. Khan, could I get some tomato seeds, please?' `Good morning, Volunteer sahib, won't you join us for some tea?' So I would have no choice but to sit down and wait while some servant ran out to get me tea. Then Mr. Khan would inquire about my wife, etc., and then all the assembled people would have a million questions about my life, about America, etc., etc., etc. It would be hard to know how to ask for my tomato seeds again without being rude. Eventually, after an hour or two I would decide to risk being rude anyway. I would get my seeds and be on my way, noting that none of the people sitting around the desk had gotten any of their business taken care of."
My own travels to the third world have led to the same confrontations with tempo. Sometimes it seems life in these countries is one long wait: for buses and trains, for entry and exit visas, for dinner, for toilets. Once, when trying to get to the train station in New Delhi, I waited 45 minutes for a bus so crowded that I had to hang on an extra two stops until I could force my way off. From there, I walked back to the station, where I waited nearly another hour to buy my train ticket. When I finally got to the window, the cashier greeted me with the traditional "Namaste" and immediately flipped up a sign that read "Closed for Lunch" (in English, I might add). With my blood pressure headed for Kashmir, I turned around to gather support for my case. But all of my compatriots were already sitting on the floor, with their blankets spread out, eating picnic lunches. "What can I do?" I asked a couple next to me. "You can join us for lunch," they answered. After several false starts to nowhere, I finally did.
When the ticket window reopened, I found my position in line had been taken by a family of six. They offered me peanuts and blessed me in Hindi. When I asked them to give me my place back, the eldest male smiled politely and mumbled something that I swear sounded like "When Shiva flies to Miami Beach." When I finally got to the ticket window, I was told my train was sold out. And all this work was for a train that was not going to leave for three more days. I eventually did get a ticket (oh, the miracles that a little baksheesh [bribery] can accomplish). But even with a ticket, I was told to come to the station an hour early, only to find I had to push through several waves of crowds to ask someone to get out of my reserved seat. Needless to say, the train left late and arrived even later, none of which mattered, because the gentleman I was scheduled to meet at the station was even later than me.
There is an inscription on the narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Express that reads: "`slow' is spelled with four letters; So is `life.' `Speed' is spelled with five letters; So is `death.'" Really.
Intercultural struggles over tempo are found all over the world. My colleague Alan Button, for example, tells how he was once late for an appointment while traveling in Russia. His guide began shouting to their cab driver a Russian phrase (Pah yeh kaly) meaning "Get there yesterday" or literally, "Let's went." His guide advised him that the literal translations of words like "hurry" and "rush" simply do not carry the urgency in Russian that they do in English. If he had merely ordered the driver to "Get there as soon as you can," Button was told, he would have arrived even later than he did. As it turns out, he arrived very late, but still found that he was some twenty minutes earlier than the fellow he was scheduled to meet.
The literature is filled with accounts of rushing, time-is-money travelers whose racing leaves the baffled residents of slower worlds running for cover. During my year in Brazil, it seemed as if I heard no more frequent words from my laid-back hosts than their pleading advice: "Calma, Bobby, calma." No matter how hard I tried to slow down, there almost always seemed to come the breathless "Calma, por favor"--sometimes as an appeal, other times offered with head-shaking pity. And I was simply moving at the tempo of a college professor from Fresno--hardly America's prototype of hurriedness.
James Jones, a fellow social psychologist from the University of Rhode Island, had a similar experience when he was living in the West Indian nation of Trinidad several years ago. He had traveled to Trinidad on a Guggenheim Fellowship to study its people's humor. But what he learned more than anything was that he was always seriously out of step. Latecomers to appointments, he reports, would greet his impatience with comments like: "Eh mon, what's your hurry, nuh? De sea ain goin' no place. Relax mon, a'm comin' to yuh just now." "So," as Jones put it, "I wait." Perhaps the most remarkable similarity in Jones's and my experiences was the profound results they had for our careers. Although we both had limited success in achieving the original goals of our projects--his to study humor in Trinidad and mine to study social perception in Brazil--these interests soon receded into the background. The more compelling puzzle, to both the traveler and the social psychologist in each of us, was the richness of the social time we encountered and our confusion with it. As a result, the study of time has become the focus of each of our research programs. Jones has gone on to become an international authority on the psychology of time perspective, and I have remained obsessed with studying the pace of life.
Elements of Tempo
What characteristics of places and cultures makes them faster or slower? To answer this question, my own research group has recently completed a series of studies comparing the pace of life in 31 different countries from throughout the world. The results of these experiments, coupled with research findings from other social scientists, establish several factors that are critical in the establishment of tempo norms.
Let me briefly describe how my studies (to which I will return in more detail in a later chapter) were conducted. In each country, we went into one or more of the major cities in order to measure three indicators of the tempo of life. (For simplicity, Hong Kong is referred to here as a country despite its present colonial status.) First, we measured the average walking speed of randomly selected pedestrians over a distance of 60 feet. The measurements were made on clear summer days during main business hours, usually during the morning rush, in at least two locations on main downtown streets. Locations were chosen that were flat, unobstructed, had broad sidewalks, and were sufficiently uncrowded that the pedestrians could potentially walk at their own preferred maximum speed. In order to control for the effects of socializing, only pedestrians walking alone were used. Neither subjects with clear physical handicaps nor those who appeared to be window-shopping were timed. A minimum of 35 walkers of each sex were clocked in each city.
The second experiment focused on an example of speed in the workplace: the time it took postal clerks to fulfill a standard request for stamps. In each city, we presented clerks with a note in the local language requesting a common stamp--the now standard 32-center in the United States, for example. They were also handed paper money--the equivalent of a $5 bill. We measured the elapsed time between the passing of the note and the completion of the request.
Third, as an estimate of a city's interest in clock time, we observed the accuracy of 15 randomly selected bank clocks in main downtown areas in each city. Times on the 15 clocks were compared to those reported by the phone company.
The three scores for each country were then statistically combined into an overall pace-of-life score.
From these experiments and the research of others, one can determine five principal factors that determine the tempo of cultures around the world. People are prone to move faster in places with vital economies, a high degree of industrialization, larger populations, cooler climates, and a cultural orientation toward individualism.
The healthier a place's economy, the faster its tempo.
As a city grows larger, the value of its inhabitants' time increases with the city's increasing wage rate and cost of living, so that economizing on time becomes more urgent, and life becomes more hurried and harried.
The number one determinant of a place's tempo is economics. Without question, the strongest and most consistent finding in our experiments is that places with vital economies tend to have faster tempos. The fastest people we found were in the wealthier North American, Northern European, and Asian nations. The slowest were in third-world countries, particularly those in South and Central America and the Middle East. (See chapter 6 for more detailed results.)
Faster overall tempos are highly related to a country's economic well-being on every level: to the economic health of the country as a whole (as measured by gross domestic product per capita); to the economic well-being actually experienced by the average citizen (as measured by purchasing power parity, which is an estimate of how much the average income earned in a country is capable of purchasing); and to how well people are able to fulfill their minimum needs (measured by average caloric intake). People from richer and poorer nations do, in fact, march to different drummers.
We can speculate about the direction of causality between the tempo of life and economic conditions. Most likely, the arrow points both ways. Places with active economies put greater value on time, and places that value time will be more likely to have active economies. Economic variables and the tempo tend to be mutually reinforcing; they come in a package.
We don't need to travel to other countries to see the connection between economics and tempo. Some of the most telling evidence for the economic explanation appears in subcultures within countries. In the United States, for example, many economically impoverished minority groups make a point of distinguishing their own shared temporal norms from those of the prevailing Anglo-American majority. American Indians like to speak of "living on Indian time." Mexican-Americans differentiate between hora inglesa--which refers to the actual time on the clock--and hora mexicana--which treats the time on the clock considerably more casually.
African-Americans often distinguish their own culture's sense of time--what they sometimes refer to by the no longer fashionable term "colored people's time" (CPT)--from the majority standard of "white people's time." Jules Henry, an anthropologist, spent more than a year during the 1960's conducting interviews with mostly poor African-American families living in a St. Louis housing development. One of the strongest distinctions his interviewees made between their own lives and those of the surrounding Anglo community concerned their self-described CPT. "According to C.P. time," Henry explains, "a scheduled event may occur at any moment over a wide spread of hours--or perhaps not at all." Henry's interviewees were quick to point out how sharply this contrasted with the highly organized, precisely scheduled world of white people.
The sociologist John Horton applies a more contemporary slant to CPT, using it to refer to "cool people's time." The term "cool people" refers to the "sporadically unemployed young Black street corner population." Horton spent two years interviewing many of these street people. "Characteristically," he reports,
the street person gets up late, hits the street in the late morning or early afternoon, and works his way to the set. This is a place for relaxed social activity. Hanging on the set with the boys is the major way of passing time and waiting until some necessary or desirable action occurs ... On the set yesterday merges into today, and tomorrow is an emptiness to be filled in through the pursuit of bread and excitement.
The prevailing tempo, in other words, is very slow. As Horton makes clear, however, the street people are adept at speeding up their tempos when the situation calls for it. The street dude, according to Horton, is on time by the standard clock whenever he cares to be and is not on time when he doesn't want to be. Most often, the latter is the case. Time for the cool person is "dead" when resources are low--such as when money is tight, or when he's in jail. But time is "alive" whenever and wherever there is "action." The tempo is slow early in the week, when money is tight, but accelerates exponentially on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Degree of Industrialization
The more developed the country, the less free time per day.
What kind of rule is this? The more timesaving machinery there is, the more pressed a person is for time.
Sebastian de Grazia, Of Time, Work, and Leisure
We should not be surprised that the wealthier places in our experiments have faster norms. Economic vitality is closely tied to industrialization. Historically, in fact, the single most crucial watershed event in the acceleration of the tempo of the Western world was the Industrial Revolution.
It is one of the great ironies of modern times that, with all of our time-saving creations, people have less time to themselves than ever before. Life in the Middle Ages is usually portrayed as bleak and dreary, but one commodity people had more of than their successors was leisure time. Until the Industrial Revolution, in fact, most evidence suggests that people showed little inclination to work. In Europe through the Middle Ages, the average number of holidays per year was around 115 days. It is interesting to note that still today, poorer countries take more holidays, on the average, than richer ones.
It has often been the very creations intended to save time that have been most responsible for increasing the workload. Recent research indicates that farm wives in the 1920's, who were without electricity, spent significantly less time at housework than did suburban women, with all their modern machinery, in the latter half of the century. One reason for this is that almost every technical advance seems to be accompanied by a rise in expectations. For example, when cheap window glass was introduced in Holland at the end of the seventeenth century it became impossible to ignore the dirt that accumulated indoors. Today's vacuum cleaners and other products have raised peoples' cleanliness standards even higher; in so doing, they demand that people invest the time needed to propel these products against the suddenly defeatable household grit and bacteria. So much for better living through Westinghouse.
It is telling to observe how modern conveniences have affected the way people use their time. A study by anthropologist Allen Johnson, for example, compared the use of time among the Machiguenga Indians to that of workers living in France. The French workers, he found, spend more time at work and consuming things (eating, reading, watching television), but have considerably less free time than the Machiguenga workers. These differences are true for both men and women. French men spend four times as many hours consuming the fruits of their labor, but pay a stiff price for these goodies: They have four hours less free time per day than their Machiguenga counterparts. Perhaps most tellingly, Johnson found that the conveniences of modern living extract an extremely high toll in the time required for their maintenance. The Machiguenga give three to four times more of their production time at home to manufacturing (for example, baskets and cloth) than they do to maintenance work (doing the laundry, cleaning, making repairs). The French pattern is almost exactly the reverse. In the end, as the anthropologist Marvin Harris observed, modern appliances are "labor-saving devices that don't save work."
Johnson, borrowing from recent economic theory, argues that industrialization produces an evolutionary progression from a "time surplus" to a "time affluence" to a "time famine" society, which is how he characterizes most developed countries. The ultimate effect, Johnson argues, is on the tempo of people's lives:
As a result of producing and consuming more, we are experiencing an increasing scarcity of time. This works in the following way. Increasing efficiency in production means that each individual must produce more goods per hour; increased productivity means ... that to keep the system going we must consume more goods. Free time gets converted into consumption time because time spent neither producing nor consuming comes increasingly to be viewed as wasted ... The increase in the value of time (its increasing scarcity) is felt subjectively as an increase in tempo or pace. We are always in danger of being slow on the production line or late to work; and in our leisure we are always in danger of wasting time.
At the slow extreme of the tempo continuum are the Stone Age economics of so-called primitive agricultural and hunting-gathering societies. The Kapauku of Papua, for example, don't believe in working two consecutive days. The !Kung Bushmen work two-and-a-half days per week, typically six hours per day. In the Sandwich Islands, men work only four hours per day.
On the average, studies show, women in less advanced economies work an average of 15 to 20 hours per week, and men put in about 15 hours. The shift to plow cultivation, which requires feeding and caring for draft animals, pushes the work week of men to 25 to 30 hours. It requires one day for a Dobe woman in Australia to gather enough food to feed her family for three days. The rest of the time is her own--to visit, entertain, work on her embroidery, or, as is often the case, to do nothing at all.
There are some underdeveloped cultures where the clock seems to stand still, if it exists at all. Edward Hall, an anthropologist, relates the story of an Afghani man in Kabul who could not locate a brother with whom he had an appointment. An investigation by a member of the American embassy eventually revealed the root of the problem: The two brothers had agreed to meet in Kabul, but had neglected to specify what year. What often surprises clock-watching Anglo-Europeans most about this story is to learn just how many people in the world fail to see the humor in Hall's story; most are quite understanding and sympathetic toward the miscommunication.
But it would be a gross generalization to conclude that industrialization and tempo are one and the same. Sometimes the tempos of third-world cultures can be strikingly different, even between seemingly similar neighbors. The anthropologist Paul Bohannan, for example, has researched tribal greeting styles. In one study, he compared the Tiv of Nigeria to their neighbors, the Hausa. The Tiv, he found, are fast people. They waste little time with perfunctory rituals such as greetings. They like to get their hellos out of the way quickly and get right down to business. Living right next to these third-world Type A's are their neighbors, the Hausas, who would not think of depriving a greeting of its rightful duration. Bohannan tells of having once observed an English anthropologist and a Hausa string out their hellos for 20 minutes. They both seemed to enjoy the ritual, the intricacies of which they had been practicing and perfecting for many years.
Rules governing how soon a greeting should begin may also vary. Sushila Niles, currently a psychology instructor at Northern Territory University in Darwin, Australia, tells about an unpleasant encounter with a government official during her stay as a teacher in an African country. After being sent in by the man's secretary, Niles found him in conversation with someone else. "I stood aside politely," she recalls. "Suddenly he turned to me and said `What madam, no greeting?' I had breached all conventions of social interaction by not greeting him the moment I stepped into his office. I said that I had been brought up to believe that interrupting was rude. But he was not mollified."
Stephen Buggie, a professor of psychology at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, spent three years teaching in Zambia and nine years in Malawi. "In Zambia," he recalls, "the tempo of life is generally slow, with casual regard toward punctuality and time. But walking speed in downtown Lusaka (the capital and largest city) is fast, as an individual deterrent against rampant pickpocketing. Neighboring Malawi is very different. Meetings there start more promptly than in Zambia. Malawi's Life President, Kamuzu Banda, practiced medicine in Scotland for 30 years before entering politics back home. He rules the country absolutely and is a stickler for punctuality. Back in the 1970's he made it illegal for public clocks to display inaccurate time. Broken clocks were supposed to be removed or covered with a shroud."
Population Size Bigger cities have faster tempos.
After economic well-being, the single strongest predictor of differences in the tempo of places is population size. Studies have shown over and over again that, on the whole, people in bigger cities move faster than their counterparts from smaller places.
In one of the earliest studies of this type, Herbert Wright, as part of his classic "City-Town" project, observed the behavior of children in typical city supermarkets and in small-town grocery stores. One of the strongest differences between the two environments turned out to be walking speed. The average city child walked nearly twice as fast through the supermarket as the town child did through the smaller grocery. The town children spent three times as much time interacting with clerks and other shoppers. They also spent significantly more time physically touching objects in the market.
Australian psychologist Paul Amato found comparable differences on the other side of the world, in New Guinea. In an interesting series of experiments, Amato observed pedestrian walking speed, the speed with which change was given in European shops, and the elapsed time of betel-nut transactions in open marketplaces in a large city (Port Moresby) and two rural towns (Wewak and Mount Hagen). The urban locale clocked in with faster speeds on the walking measure and betel-nut transactions. There were no urban-rural differences on the change measure--tellingly, no one in any of the locales in New Guinea seemed at all interested in this sort of activity.
The definitive treatise on the association between walking speed and population size comes from a series of international studies by psychologist Marc Bornstein and his colleagues. In their first group of experiments, Bornstein's team observed walking speeds in main downtown locations in a total of 25 cities spread across Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, and the United States. They found an astonishingly high relationship between population size and walking speed across this heterogeneous collection of cities. (In statistical terms, they found a correlation of r = .91 between population size and walking speed, with 1.00 being the highest correlation possible; in other words, an almost perfect relationship.)
When strong mathematical relationships occur in cross-cultural studies of this type, they beg for replication. Answering this challenge, Bornstein conducted a second series of studies. He applied the conditions of his earlier investigation to a new sample of cities and towns in Ireland, Scotland, and the United States. Once again, he found that there was an extremely strong correlation between population size and walking speed (r = .88). Bornstein argues that "a highly predictable relationship seems to exist between the pace of life that characterizes a locale and the size of its population." Given Bornstein's results--one does not often discover correlations of this magnitude in the inherently noisy science of social psychology--it is difficult to argue with his conclusion.
Climate Hotter places are slower.
There is also considerable validity to the old stereotype about life being slower in warmer places. All of the slowest nations in our 31-country study--Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia were the slowest of all--have tropical climates. These are the sort of places that people from the fastest countries--Switzerland, Ireland, Germany--look toward for their winter vacations. Looking at the 31 countries as a whole, we found a strong relationship between the climate (as measured by average maximum temperatures) of cities and how slow they were on our measures.
Some people believe that the slow tempo of warm places has an ergonomic explanation-that it results from a general lack of energy. Certainly, anyone who has been through a heat wave knows that high temperatures can wear one down. Others hypothesize that the slowness has an evolutionary/economic sensibility. They argue that people in warmer places don't need to work as hard. They require fewer and less costly belongings--fewer clothes, simpler homes, so why bother to rush? Then there are people who believe that warmer climates simply encourage taking time to enjoy life. Whatever the explanation, it is clear that hotter places are much more likely to have slower tempos.
What People are saying about this
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >