A Geography of Time, Robert Levine

2015-02-26 12.34.19I confess that I may have been motivated to pick this up in response to E’s generally lackadaisical approach to time keeping. It would, at least, give me something to think about while I sit or stand in the cold and rain waiting for her to arrive. But, I have to say, this was one of the most interesting books I have ever read.

This book sets out to examine how attitudes to time, pace of life and punctuality vary from place to place and to reflect on the insights this gives us into different cultures around the world and to our own cultures and mores.  Why is it that some people spend their days rushing from late appointment to late appointment while others have all the time in the world?  Levine argues that the social rules about time are a “silent language” embedded into every culture and without understanding them, you will never truly understand that culture.

This book is full of interesting quotes and anecdotes about time, from the Anonymous Englishman:

The further East I travel the sloppier the perception of time becomes.  It irritates me in Poland and drives me gibbering in the USSR.

To the inscription on the Darjeeling Himalayan Express that reads: “slow” is spelt with four letters; so is “life”. “speed” is spelt with five letters; so is “death”.  And using these and some fantastic anecdotes, Levine entices us through his research into time.

Predicting pace of life

The first thing that Levine looks at is whether people do actually have a faster pace of life in different countries.  By measuring walking speed, the accuracy of clocks and work speed around the world, Levine found that that people are prone to move faster in places with:

  • vital economies
  • a high degree of industrialisation
  • larger populations
  • cooler climates
  • a cultural orientation towards individualism

It is unclear which way the causality goes in terms of better economies having a faster tempo of life, but this link between speed and economic productivity is an interesting one.

Where is life fastest?

Life is too short for me to type out the entire list (such a clock time view of the world), but here is an idea of where the pace of life is the fastest.

  1. Switzerland
  2. Ireland
  3. Germany
  4. Japan

6. UK

10. Kong Kong

16. USA

17. Canda

Mexico came at the bottom of the list and Levine argues that in Mexico, slowness is so ingrained into the culture that it is considered rude to be on time.  Levine also looks at the impact of living at such different speeds. He found that in cities that have a fast pace of life, there is a higher rate of heart disease and smoking but, paradoxically, people were generally happier – possibly because they were more economically productive and so had a higher standard of living.

Perception of time: the distorted psychological clock

The book then moves on to think about temporal relativity, and how we experience time via this lovely quote from Einstein

When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes; when you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours. That’s relativity.

If you take away clocks and daylight, people lose the ability to judge time with any accuracy. In fact, even with those aids, we are still very bad at estimating time.   People’s sense of how long things last is very much affected by their psychology – as in Einstein’s quote above.

Time goes faster when:

  1. you’re having fun (Grandma was right)
  2. you aren’t in a rush.  As soon as you are trying to do something quickly, everything feels slow – “more haste, less speed”
  3. you are busy
  4. you experience variety – variety is the opposite of boredom and we know that boredom slows time.
  5. when we are involved in art or music – the idea of flow

But there were some fascinating nuggets here, apparently extroverts are more accurate than introverts.  Obese people more accurate than the average weighted. Heavy drug users are more accurate than light drug users.  It is amazing the things people think to study! And, Levine argues that some people are able to ‘slow down’ time for themselves.  He describes the aim of Zen being to move beyond the experience of time so that time stands still, and shares stories from sports people who talk about being ‘in the zone’ when everything seems to slow and they have infinite time to hit the ball (or whatever).

The difference between cultures running on clock time vs event time

The difference between clock time and event time was a lightbulb moment for me.  It explained so many things I had experienced travelling the world and gave such a different perspective on life.

We survived for thousands of years without any accurate way of measuring time, yet since its relatively recent inception clock time has begun to be worshipped by many cultures.  In the past it was impossible to be punctual, or to prove it if you were.  Even the use of a sundial was at the mercy of a cloudy day, and never that precise and, of course, totally useless at night. It wasn’t until the late c17 that the word ‘punctual’, which had previously referred to someone who was a stickler for proper conduct, developed the connotations of being on time, and it was another hundred years before the word ‘punctuality’ entered our language.

Then alongside industrialisation we developed the ability to match sets of clocks to share the same time. Clock marketers in America pushed the idea that punctuality was linked with virtue and success.  This culminated in the scientific management movement led by Frederick Taylor in which time and motion studies broke down jobs into their constituent individual activities which were timed to ensure maximum efficiency.  In America, drives to standardise to railway time led to uproar in the independent States who felt like losing their version of time was giving up a piece of independence.

Living on event time

If clock time is driven by a timepiece deciding when you will do something, event time is driven by how long activities, or social events take and when people agree that they are finished. Things start when people arrive and end when people leave.  I can’t help but think that E lives on event time. An example of event time comes from the Nuer of South Sudan who construct their “cattle camps in the month of kur. How do they know when it is kur? It’s kur when they are building their dams and camps.  They break camp and return to their villages in the month of dwat.  When is it dwat? It is when people are on the move. Then we meet the Kachin people of North Burma who not only don’t have a word for time, but also don’t have it as a concept in their culture; at this point, my mind blew.

But these differences in approach to time also exist in organisations. Clock time people are likely to do one task, complete it and then do the next, while event time people will have several tasks on the go and move between them as it seems appropriate.  I’m sure you can imagine colleagues that fit both descriptions.

Event time cultures also tend to put much more weight on the quality of personal relationships, so you wouldn’t end an interesting conversation simply because you had a 2 o’clock meeting – that would be unforgivably rude.  You would know that the person you were meeting would understand if you were late. Similarly, here, we explore how a 2 o’clock meeting in clock time cultures will start on the button of 2 o’clock, whereas in more event time cultures it may start at 2.15, 2.30 or even 3pm.   Towards the end of the book, Levine suggests a number of questions you should ask when you visit a new culture, to try to avoid any temporal misunderstandings – the first of these is to learn to translate appointment times!

There were so many fascinating parts to this book – I hope I have given you a flavour of them – and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who has ever travelled. Developing time literacy, that is the ability to move between event time and clock time, and to work out what the time culture of a new place is, is so crucial to working and living with other cultures. This is definitely the most interesting book I have read this year!

5 thoughts on “A Geography of Time, Robert Levine

  1. Fascinating stuff! As someone who has always preferred a semi-nocturnal lifestyle, I’ve been aware for years of how people in our country attach some kind of moral superiority to early-to-bed early-to-rise. As I crawl out of bed at noon after my seven hours sleep, someone will inevitably say ‘I’ve been up since dawn and have achieved this, that and the other.’ But when they collapse with exhaustion and drool in front of the TV at 9 p.m., I’m just beginning to bounce. Somewhere in the world I’d probably fit in… I like the idea of Nuer time, I may adopt it!


  2. Absolutely. I had never considered that the concept of punctuality couldn’t have existed before accurate and standardised time keeping was possible. I’m afraid you have the American clock marketers to blame for the current moral superiority around time!


  3. Excellent article. I shall put the book on the reading list.
    However, I can’t believe that Ireland is number 2 on the ‘pace of life’ list. It must have changed since I was there as a teenager. (Yes, OK. I realise that countries can change in fifty years. You didn’t have to point that out!)
    We were on holiday in Ireland in a horse-drawn caravan. In the middle of nowhere, a farmer stopped us to tell us that our harness was too loose.
    Two hours later he was still chatting away to us. My father said “Well, we must be getting on. I’m sure you are very busy.” “No, no,” said the farmer. “When God made time, he made plenty of it!”

    Liked by 1 person

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