Keeping Time

IN THIS ISSUE JANUARY 2008

Robert Levine looks at cultural time differences
Author: Robert Levine

In western culture, time is money. Workers are paid by the hour, lawyers charge by the minute and advertising is sold by the second ($86,666.66 per second for the 2007 Super Bowl). Think about this: the civilized mind has reduced time--the most obscure and amorphous of all intangibles--to the most objective of all quantities: money. With time and things on the same value scale, I can tell you how many of my working hours equal the price of the computer I am typing on.

Can I really? As a social scientist, I’ve spent much of the last 25 years studying how people around the world conceive, use and measure time. If I’ve learned anything, it is that the numbers on the clock capture only one facet of the human experience of time. Cultures differ profoundly in their conceptions of early and late, of waiting and rushing, of the, the present, and the future. With no formal dictionary to spell out a culture’s rules, the unsuspecting visitor often stumbles into temporal confusion.

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Keeping Time - Robert Levine

I learned this first-hand when, early in my career, I spent a year as a Visiting Professor at a university in Niteroi, Brazil, a mid-sized city across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. I anticipated difficulties in domains like language, my privacy, and standards of cleanliness. But these turned out to be a piece of cake compared to the distress that Brazilians’ ideas about time and punctuality were to cause me.

My lessons began soon after arriving. As I left for my first day of teaching, I asked someone the time. It was 9:05 a.m., allowing me plenty of time to get to my 10 o’clock lecture. After what I judged to be half an hour, I glanced at a clock I was passing. It said 10:20! In panic, I broke for the classroom, followed by gentle calls of “Alô, Professor” and “Tudo bem, professor?” from unhurried students, many of whom, I later realized, were my own. I arrived breathless to find an empty room.

The way people conceive, use and measure time is intertwined with their fundamental cultural values and, by definition, all cultural values are arbitrary.

I anxiously asked a passerby the time. “Nine forty-five,” came the answer. No, that couldn’t be. I asked someone else. “Nine fifty-five.” The clock in a nearby office read three-fifteen. I had received my first two lessons: Brazilian timepieces are consistently inaccurate; and nobody seemed to mind but me.

My class was scheduled from ten until noon. Many students came late. Several arrived after 10:30. A few showed up closer to eleven. Two came after that. All of the latecomers wore the relaxed smiles I later came to enjoy. Each one greeted me, and although a few apologized briefly, none seemed terribly concerned about being late. They assumed I understood.

 

That Brazilians would arrive late was no surprise. I was well aware before arriving of the stereotype of the amanhã attitude of Brazilians (the Portuguese version of a mañana), whereby it is said that whenever it is conceivably possible the business of today is put off until tomorrow. The real surprise came at noon that first day, when the class came to a close.

 

Back home in California, I never need to look at a clock to know when the class hour is ending. The shuffling of books is accompanied by strained expressions screaming: “I’m hungry/I’ve got to go to the bathroom/I’m going to suffocate if you keep us one more second.”

But when noon arrived for my first Brazilian class, only a few students left right away. Others slowly drifted out during the next 15 minutes, and some continued asking me questions long after that. When several remaining students kicked off their shoes at 12:30, I went into my own hungry/bathroom/ suffocation plea.

Although this was the first time I was confounded by Brazilian notions of time, it definitely wasn’t the last. It seemed, over that year, that I was always out of step with my hosts. The reason for my temporal ineptness, I eventually came to understand, was that Brazilians were operating with a completely different relationship to time than I was used to. I was living on clock time. My Brazilian hosts were on event time.

Under clock time, the hour on the timepiece governs the beginning and ending of activities. When event time predominates, scheduling is determined by activities. Events begin and end when, by mutual consensus, participants “feel” the time is right. Sociologist Robert Lauer, in his book Temporal Man, concluded that the most fundamental difference in timekeeping throughout history has been between people operating by the clock versus those who measure time by social events. What’s more surprising to travelers like myself is how diverse the world remains today.

Under clock time, the hour on the timepiece governs the beginning and ending of activities. When event time predominates, scheduling is determined by activities.

Many countries exhort event time as a philosophy of life. In Mexico, for example, there is a popular adage to “Give time to time” (Darle tiempo al tiempo). Across the globe in Africa, it is said that “Even the time takes its time.” In Trinidad, it is a cultural bedrock that “Any time is Trinidad time.”

Even the most radical clock-timers sometimes operate on event time. In typical clock time fashion, for example, people from the United States tend to arrive much more punctually to parties than Brazilians (in one of our studies, Brazilians said they would arrive, on average, a little over one-half hour late for a nephew’s birthday party; the average for U.S. respondents was three minutes late). But once at the party, not even the most compulsive U.S. guests will schedule conversations by the clock. No one says, “I’ll pencil you for a chat from 7:18 to 7:31.” When do conversations begin and end? By unstated mutual consensus, when it “seems the right time” or “just happens.” This is event time.

There is a third type of timekeeping, nature time, when scheduling by clocks becomes virtually impossible. My former graduate student, Salvatore Niyonzima, described a good example from his home country of Burundi. Life in Burundi, as in most of Central Africa, is guided by the seasons. More than 80% of the population of Burundi are farmers. As a result, “people still rely on the phases of nature,” Niyonzima explains. “When the dry season begins it is time for harvesting. And when the rainy season comes back, it’s time to return to the fields and plant and grow things, because this is the cycle.”

Keeping Time - Robert Levine

Appointment times in Burundi are also often regulated by natural cycles. “Appointments are not necessarily in terms of a precise hour of the day. For people who grew up in rural areas, and who haven’t had very much education, they might make an early appointment by saying, ‘Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow morning when the cows are going out for grazing.’” If they want to meet in the middle of the day, “they set their appointment for the time ‘when the cows are going to drink in the stream,’ which is where they’re led at mid-day.”

Specifying precise nighttime appointments, Niyonzima says, “gets difficult. I certainly wouldn’t give a time like 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. When people want to name a particular time, they might use references to aspects of sleep. They may, for example, say something occurred at a time ‘When nobody was awake’ or, if they wanted to be a little more specific, at the time ‘When people were beginning the first period of their sleep.’ Later in the night might be called ‘Almost the morning light’ or the time ‘When the rooster sings;’ or, to get really specific, ‘When the rooster sings for the first time’ or the second time, and so on. And then we’re ready for the cows again.” There is no “correct” way of keeping time. Each has its place. Most important is to recognize that no one’s rules are cut in stone.

The numbers on the clock capture only one facet of the human experience of time. Cultures differ profoundly in their conceptions of early and late, of waiting and rushing, of the past, the present, and the future.

A 2006 study by the publishers of the Oxford Dictionary found that the word “time” is the most commonly used noun in the English language. But what that word means to different people is something else again. “Each culture believes that every other kind of space and time is an approximation to or a perversion of the real space and time in which it lives,” Lewis Mumford wisely noted. The way people conceive, use and measure time is intertwined with their fundamental cultural values and, by definition, all cultural values are arbitrary.

Our rules of social time are, as the anthropologist Edward Hall observed, a silent language, but one which often speaks louder than words. How we approach time defines nothing less than the texture of our days and the grammar of our social relationships. Learning how others’ count their time teaches new options for counting our own.

Have you ever felt like the most impatient person on the planet when arriving in a country whose idea of time is not as regulated as yours? How did you adapt to their cultural time clock? - Tell us below!