Do different cultures perceive time differently?

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20 December
10:51
December
2016

In Western society, and in industrial nations, we are wedded to clock time. Why? For economic reasons. We need to meet and exchange. And that is the success of the Western, industrial nations because we’re very much focused on clock time. If you’re three minutes late for a meeting with your boss, you’ll be punished. You can’t turn up five minutes late for an important meeting.

"Being enveloped in a society that has a fast pace of life has an effect on our perception of time – generally, people in Western societies moan about time passing quickly."

But there are countries that don’t rely as heavily on clock time. The social psychologist Robert Levine wrote a fascinating book, entitled A Geography of Time, on this. He had students from all over the world studying with him. And then during the summer vacation, when these students went back to their native countries, he gave them little tests to do – how fast you could they get a stamp in the post office? How accurate were the clocks? And so on, and so on. The results were clear. In cities and industrial nations, life is dictated by clock time, unlike in rural areas or developing countries.

So this has implications for how people perceive time. Being enveloped in a society that has a fast pace of life has an effect on our perception of time – generally, people in Western societies moan about time passing quickly. Conversely, having a more relaxed view of time occurs in not-so industrialised nations.

We feel time pressure because we’re focusing on time. I might be working on a paper, but I know that I’m expecting a phone call at a certain time. And that person will call at the right time and that’s perfect. It’s how we work. But in other societies you might have a person calling around noon. And that’s the difference. In those societies feel much more relaxed because you don’t feel pressured.

"In his book, Levine mentions Brazil where he gave courses and students would regularly turn up after the scheduled time."

I know that shortly I have a lunch appointment with my wife so I will be checking the clock. I can’t relax. Of course that date with my wife is important, but these are the pros and cons of the different ways of dealing with time.

In his book, Levine mentions Brazil, where he gave courses, and students would regularly turn up after the scheduled time. I have asked all my Brazilian friends and colleagues and they agree with this. Brazil is interesting, because you have all the ways of dealing with time in one country. Sao Paolo is an industrialised, Westernised city, but then you have towns in rural areas where time does not seem to pass at all.

You can also look within Europe for different attitudes towards time. The northern, Protestant countries and the southern Catholic or Christian orthodox countries both differ in economic wealth and in dealing with time. For instance, being industrious vs La Dolce Vita. Also within Italy you have a north and south divide, in both money and time. Wealth of time and wealth of money are inversely correlated.

Marc Wittmann is the author of Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time.

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