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Taking Time

Posted: 09/17/2012 8:00 pm

By Robert Levine, Ph.D.

Time is money in the West. Workers are paid by the hour, lawyers charge by the minute, and advertising is sold by the second ($117,000 per second at this year's 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 the "personalities" of places. Much of this work has focused on the attitudes toward time held by those who inhabit those places. My colleagues and I have found vast cultural differences in definitions of what constitutes early and late, waiting and rushing, the past, the present, and the future.

Perhaps the biggest clash is between cultures that operate on clock time and those that work on event time. Under clock time, the hour on the timepiece governs the beginning and ending of activities. Lunch begins at 12 and ends at 1. Punctuality is the governing principle. When event time predominates, schedules are spontaneous. Events begin and end when, by mutual consensus, participants "feel" the time is right. Many countries exhort event time as a philosophy of life. In Mexico, for example, there is a popular adage, "Give time to time" ("Darle tiempo al tiempo"). In Liberia it is said, "Even the time takes its time." In Trinidad it is something of a cultural bedrock that "any time is Trinidad time."

Our own research has compared the pace of life in different cities. In an early study we conducted field experiments in the largest or other major city in each of 31 countries. One experiment, for example, timed the average walking speed of randomly selected pedestrians over a distance of 60 feet. Another experiment sampled speed in the workplace -- specifically, how long it took postal clerks to fulfill a standard request for stamps. All measurements were taken during main business hours in main downtown areas under similar conditions. More recently, my colleague Stephen Reysen and I replicated these experiments in 24 cities across the United States.

We've found large differences in these studies. The fastest big cities in the international study, for example, tended to come from Western Europe and prosperous Asian countries, while those from traditional event-time countries (such as Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia) tended to be slowest. The differences were often substantial. For example, on the walking-speed measure we found that pedestrians in Rio de Janeiro walked only two-thirds as fast as did pedestrians in Zurich, Switzerland. (For further details, see, for example, Levine, A Geography of Time [Basic Books]). We've found these differences are to at least some degree predictable by demographic, economic, and environmental characteristics of the places, and, more importantly, they have consequences for the well-being of individuals and their communities.

The consequences are mixed. On the positive side, people in faster places tend to say they are happier with their lives. We believe this reflects the economic rewards that result from making every minute "productive": Faster cities in our studies tended to have healthier economies, and we know from other studies that people who have difficulty meeting their minimal needs tend to be less happy. (A sidebar: Money does not, however, appear to affect happiness beyond poverty. There is little difference in happiness between moderately wealthy and very wealthy individuals.)

But a fast pace of life has its costs. In another series of experiments, conducted in many of the same cities, we compared the likelihood that a passerby would assist a stranger in need. In one experiment, for example, we observed the proportion of people who went out of their way to return an inadvertently dropped pen. In another, we observed the proportion who assisted a man with an injured leg trying to pick up a dropped magazine. Not surprisingly, there were strong differences between cities (see "The Kindness of Strangers"). Perhaps the most notable finding was a negative relationship between the pace of life and helping: People in faster places were less likely to take the time to assist a stranger in need.

The problem may not be speed per se so much as feeling rushed. In a now-classic experiment, John Darley and Daniel Batson gathered a group of Princeton University Seminary students for what they understood to be a study about religious education. The students were told they'd be giving a brief talk, either about the types of jobs seminary graduates are suited for or about the parable of the "good Samaritan." They were then directed to walk to a recording studio across campus. Along the way, they passed a man slumped in a doorway who was coughing and groaning loudly. The students were divided into two groups. Half of them were told there was no need to rush in getting to the recording studio. Almost two-thirds of this group stopped to help the suffering man. The other half of the students were told they were late and needed to hurry to the studio. Among this group, only 10 percent helped. Ninety percent were apparently too busy to stop. "Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way," Darley and Batson recalled.

People may ignore strangers for a variety of reasons. They may be too busy to notice, or too busy to care. They may fear how the stranger will react. Or they might simply be uncaring jerks. To the stranger in need, however, reasons are beside the point. The only thing that matters is whether they get help.

When did it become acceptable in America to treat helping strangers as "wasted time"? Everyone in the world agrees -- they should, anyway -- that time is our most precious commodity. But peoples' definitions of "wasted" are another great cultural divider. To a time-is-money clock-timer it refers to anything that distracts from the task at hand. To an event-timer, however, there is nothing more wasteful than carving one's life into inflexible, inorganic units.

I'll never forget a conversation I once had with an exchange student from Burkina Faso in Eastern Africa. I was complaining that I'd just wasted my morning yakking in a café instead of doing my work. He looked confused. "How can you waste time? If you're not doing one thing, you're doing something else. Even if you're just talking to a friend or sitting around, that's what you're doing." He said he was taught that what's wasteful -- sinful, to some -- is to not make sufficient time available for the people in your life.

What does it say about a culture when schedules take precedent over the life in front of your eyes, when the ticking of a clock discourages compassionate behavior? There are plenty of experts in the United States you can pay to help plan your days more efficiently. Here's another suggestion. Try beginning your day with a question people often ask in Brunei: "What is not going to happen today?" While you're at it, don't forget to give time to time.

Robert Levine is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Fresno. His book, A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or, How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Differently, was awarded the Otto Klineberg Intercultural and International Relations Award. His website is boblevine.net.

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