A freelance writer, to write “Social Time: The The heartbeat of Culture.”
Social Time: The Heartbeat of Culture
Robert Levine, with Ellen Wolff
Robert Levine, professor of psychology at California State University at Fresno,
collaborated with Ellen Wolff, a freelance writer, to write “Social Time: The
The heartbeat of Culture.” Levine is also the author of A Geography of Time: The
Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps
Time Just a Little Bit Differently (1997) and The Power of Persuasion: How
We’re Bought and Sold (2003). “Social Time: The Heartbeat of Culture” was
originally published in Psychology Today, a monthly magazine that presents
research fi ndings to a nonprofessional audience.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a
different drummer.” This thought by Thoreau strikes a chord in so many people
that it has become part of our language. We use the phrase “the beat of a different
drummer” to explain any pace of life unlike our own. Such colorful vagueness
reveals how informal our rules of time really are. The world over, children simply
“pick up” their society’s time concepts as they mature. No dictionary clearly
defi nes the meaning of “early” or “late” for them or for strangers who stumble
over the maddening incongruities between the time sense they bring with them
and the one they face in a new land.
I learned this fi rsthand, a few years ago, and the resulting culture shock led me
halfway around the world to fi nd answers. It seemed clear that time “talks.” But
what is it telling us?
My journey started shortly after I accepted an appointment as visiting professor
of psychology at the federal university in Niteroi, Brazil, a midsized city across the
bay from Rio de Janeiro. As I left home for my fi rst day of class, I asked someone
the time. It was 9:05 A.M., which allowed me time to relax and look around the
campus before 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 “Hola,1 professor” and “Tudo bem,2 professor?” from
unhurried students, many of whom, I later realized, were my own. I arrived
breathless to fi nd an empty room.
Frantically, I asked a passerby the time. “Nine forty-fi ve” was the answer. No,
that couldn’t be. I asked someone else. “Nine fi fty-fi ve.” Another said: “Exactly
9:43.” The clock in a nearby offi ce read 3:15. I had learned my fi rst lesson about
Brazilians: Their timepieces are consistently inaccurate. And nobody minds.
My class was scheduled from 10 until noon. Many students came late, some
very late. Several arrived after 10:30. A few showed up closer to 11. Two came
after that. All of the latecomers wore the relaxed smiles that I came, later, to
enjoy. Each one said hello, although a few apologized briefl y, none seemed terribly
concerned about lateness. They assumed that I understood.
The idea of Brazilians arriving late was not a great shock. I had heard about
“manhã,” the Portuguese equivalent of “mañana” in Spanish. This term, meaning
“tomorrow” or “the morning,” stereotypes the Brazilian who puts off the business
of today until tomorrow. The real surprise came at noon that fi rst day, when the
end of class arrived.
Back home in California, I never need to look at a clock to know when the class
hour is ending. The shuffl ing of books is accompanied by strained expressions
that say plaintively, “I’m starving. . . . I’ve got to go to the bathroom. . . . I’m
going to suffocate if you keep us one more second.” (The pain usually becomes
unbearable at two minutes to the hour in undergraduate classes and fi ve minutes
before the close of graduate classes.)
When noon arrived in my fi rst Brazilian class, only a few students left immediately.
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 “starving/bathroom/suffocation” routine.
I could not, in all honesty, attribute their lingering to my superb teaching style.
I had just spent two hours lecturing on statistics in halting Portuguese. Apparently,
for many of my students, staying late was simply of no more importance than
arriving late in the fi rst place. As I observed this casual approach in infi nite
variations during the year, I learned that the “manhã” stereotype oversimplifi ed
the real Anglo/Brazilian differences in conceptions of time. Research revealed a
more complex picture.
With the assistance of colleagues Laurie West and Harry Reis, I compared the
time sense of 91 male and female students in Niteroi with that of 107 similar
students at California State University in Fresno. The universities are similar in
academic quality and size, and the cities are both secondary metropolitan centers
with populations of about 350,000.
We asked students about their perceptions of time in several situations, such as
what they could consider late or early for a hypothetical lunch appointment with
a friend. The average Brazilian student defi ned lateness for lunch as 3312
after the scheduled time, compared to 19 minutes for the Fresno students. But
Brazilians also allowed an average of about 54 minutes before they’d consider
someone early, while the Fresno students drew the line at 24.
Are Brazilians simply more fl exible in their concepts of time and punctuality?
And how does this relate to the stereotype of the apathetic, fatalistic and
irresponsible Latin temperament? When we asked students to give typical reasons
for lateness, the Brazilians were less likely to attribute it to a lack of caring than the
North Americans were. Instead, they pointed to unforeseen circumstances that
the person couldn’t control. Because they seemed less inclined to feel personally
responsible for being late, they also expressed less regret for their own lateness
and blamed others less when they were late.
We found similar differences in how students from the two countries
characterized people who were late for appointments. Unlike their North
American counterparts, the Brazilian students believed that a person who is
consistently late is probably more successful than one who is consistently on
time. They seemed to accept the idea that someone of status is expected to arrive
late. Lack of punctuality is a badge of success.
Even within our own country, of course, ideas of time and punctuality vary
considerably from place to place. Different regions and even cities have their
own distinct rhythms and rules. Seemingly simple words like “now,” snapped out
by an impatient New Yorker, and “later,” said by a relaxed Californian, suggest a
world of difference. Despite our familiarity with these homegrown differences
in tempo, problems with time present a major stumbling block to Americans
abroad. Peace Corps volunteers told researchers James Spradley of Macalester
College and Mark Phillips of the University of Washington that their greatest
diffi culties with other people, after language problems, were the general pace
of life and the punctuality of others. Formal “clock time” may be a standard on
which the world agrees, but “social time,” the heartbeat of society, is something
How a country paces its social life is a mystery to most outsiders, one that
we’re just beginning to unravel. Twenty-six years ago, anthropologist Edward
Hall noted in The Silent Language that informal patterns of time “are seldom, if
ever, made explicit. They exist in the air around us. They are either familiar and
comfortable, or unfamiliar and wrong.” When we realize we are out of step, we
often blame the people around us to make ourselves feel better.
Appreciating cultural differences in time sense becomes increasingly important as
modern communications put more and more people in daily contact. If we are to
misreading issues that involve time perceptions, we need to understand better our
cultural biases and those of others.
When people of different cultures interact, the potential for misunderstanding
exists on many levels. For example, members of Arab and Latin cultures usually
stand much closer when they are speaking to people than we usually do in the
United States, a fact we frequently misinterpret as aggression or disrespect.
Similarly, we assign personality traits to groups with a pace of life that is markedly
faster or slower than our own. We build ideas of national character, for example,
around the traditional Swiss and German ability to “make the trains run on time.”
Westerners like ourselves define punctuality using precise measures of time: 5
minutes, 15 minutes, an hour. But according to Hall, in many Mediterranean Arab
cultures there are only three sets of time: no time at all, now (which is of varying
duration) and forever (too long). Because of this, Americans often find
difficulty in getting Arabs to distinguish between waiting a long time and a very long
According to historian Will Durant, “No man in a hurry is quite civilized.”
What do our time judgments say about our attitude toward life? How can a North
American, coming from a land of digital precision, relate to a North African who
may consider a clock “the devil’s mill”?
Each language has a vocabulary of time that does not always survive translation.
When we translated our questionnaires into Portuguese for my Brazilian students,
we found that English distinctions of time were not readily articulated in their
language. Several of our questions concerned how long the respondent would wait
for someone to arrive, as compared with when they hoped for arrival or actually
expected the person would come. In Portuguese, the verbs “to wait for,” “to hope
for” and “to expect” are all translated as “esperar.” We had to add further words
of explanation to make the distinction clear to the Brazilian students.
To avoid these language problems, my Fresno colleague Kathy Bartlett and
I decided to clock the pace of life in other countries by using as little language
as possible. We looked directly at three basic indicators of time: the accuracy of
a country’s bank clocks, the speed at which pedestrians walked and the average
time it took a postal clerk to sell us a single stamp. In six countries on three
continents, we made observations in both the nation’s largest urban area and
a medium-sized city: Japan (Tokyo and Sendai), Taiwan (Taipei and Tainan),
Indonesia (Jakarta and Solo), Italy (Rome and Florence), England (London and
Bristol) and the United States (New York City and Rochester).
What we wanted to know was: Can we speak of a unitary concept called “pace
of life”? What we’ve learned suggests that we can. There appears to be a verystrong
relationship (see chart on page 81) between the accuracy of clock time,
walking speed and postal effi ciency across the countries we studied.
We checked 15 clocks in each city, selecting them at random in downtown banks
and comparing the time they showed with that reported by the local telephone
company. In Japan, which leads the way in accuracy, the clocks averaged just over
half a minute early or late. Indonesian clocks, the least accurate, were more than
three minutes off the mark.
I will be interested to see how the digital-information age will affect our
perceptions of time. In the United States today, we are reminded of the exact hour
of the day more than ever, through little symphonies of beeps emanating from
people’s digital watches. As they become the norm, I fear our sense of precision
may take an absurd twist. The other day, when I asked for the time, a student
looked at his watch and replied, “Three twelve and eighteen seconds.”
“ ‘Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a snail. ‘There’s a porpoise close
behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.’ ”
So goes the rhyme from Alice in Wonderland, which also gave us that famous
symbol of haste, the White Rabbit. He came to mind often as we measured
the walking speeds in our experimental cities. We clocked how long it took
pedestrians to walk 100 feet along a main downtown street during business
hours on clear days. To eliminate the effects of socializing, we observed only
people walking alone, timing at least 100 in each city. We found, once again,
that the Japanese led the way, averaging just 20.7 seconds to cover the distance.
The English nosed out the Americans for second place – 21.6 to 22.5 seconds –
and the Indonesians again trailed the pack, sauntering along at 27.2 seconds.
As you might guess, speed was greater in the larger city of each nation than in
its smaller one.
Our fi nal measurement, the average time it took postal clerks to sell one stamp,
turned out to be less straightforward than we expected. In each city, including
those in the United States, we presented clerks with a note in the native language
requesting a common-priced stamp. . . . They were also handed paper money,
the equivalent of a $5 bill. In Indonesia, this procedure led to more than we
At the large central post offi ce in Jakarta, I asked for the line to buy stamps and
was directed to a group of private vendors sitting outside. Each of them hustled for
my business: “Hey, good stamps, mister!” “Best stamps here!” In the smaller city
of Solo, I found a volleyball game in progress when I arrived at the main post offi ce
on Friday afternoon. Business hours, I was told, were over. When I fi nally did get
there during business hours, the clerk was more interested in discussing relatives
in America. Would I like to meet his uncle in Cincinnati? Which did I like better:
California or the United States? Five people behind me in line waited patiently:
Instead of complaining, they began paying attention to our conversation.
When it came to effi ciency of service, however, the Indonesians were not
the slowest, although they did place far behind the Japanese postal clerks, who
averaged 25 seconds. That distinction went to the Italians, whose infamous postal
service took 47 seconds on the average.
“A man who wastes one hour of time has not discovered the meaning of life. . . .”
That was Charles Darwin’s belief, and many share it, perhaps at the cost of
their health. My colleagues and I have recently begun studying the relationship
between pace of life and well-being. Other researchers have demonstrated that
a chronic sense of urgency is a basic component of the Type A, coronary-prone
personality. We expect that future research will demonstrate that pace of life is
related to rate of heart disease, hypertension, ulcers, suicide, alcoholism, divorce
and other indicators of general psychological and physical well-being.
As you envision tomorrow’s international society, do you wonder who will
set the pace? Americans eye Japan carefully, because the Japanese are obviously
“ahead of us” in measurable ways. In both countries, speed is frequently confused
with progress. Perhaps looking carefully at the different paces of life around the
world will help us distinguish more accurately between the two qualities. Clues
are everywhere but sometimes hard to distinguish.
|Academic Level||College (1-2 years: Freshmen, Sophomore)|
|Subject Area||English 101|
|Number of Pages||1 Page(s)/275 words|