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Across Cultures

Time in Different Cultures
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

In August 2008, I was delighted and intrigued to receive an email query from a journalist with the South China Morning Post, published in Hong Kong.  I had visited Hong Kong for a weekend in 1995, and was glad to have a new personal contact there.  Writer Andrea Pawlyna wrote with a set of questions related the cultural concepts of time.

Why do some people seem to live their lives by the clock while others have a more laid back approach to time?

This seems to have to do with the values and expectations of the particular cultural group they relate to, grow up in and are conditioned by.  In this regard you will see differences between various "ethnic" groups, social groups, regional groupings and even clans and families.  So differences will be discernible even between different family groups or lineages in what might otherwise be considered one ethnic or social group.

Some families or ethnicities value abstract structures and schedules more than others.  Some societies are highly structured.  How things are done and how long it is expected for something to get done depends on the overall context of the event, the group expectations and how much value is put on time efficiency.  All cultures have some concept of efficiency, but getting things done quickly is a value only in certain usually mechanically technological societies, and task-oriented or production-oriented situations.

Urban settings in every culture or geographical setting tend to be more "time-conscious" in regard to artificial and mechanical "clock time" than rural societies ("traditional" societies).  The latter tend to be more relationship and community oriented, and values related to interpersonal relationships or group identity are given greater value than tasks or production, or related technological or abstract demands.

In task-oriented linear-thinking societies time is a commodity, whereas in traditional and more rural societies, which are generally oral-relational in character, time is a function of your relationships or the cycles of life.

Values and Expectations
People are conditioned by the expectations of their social group.  For some this socializing group is only the nuclear family, while in some societies it is the clan or lineage group as a whole.  The values that are emphasized when a person grows up tend to remain the basic values of life orientation.  Individuals additionally vary according to their own temperament and response to socialization even within a family or other defined social group or ethnic community.

Some societies, groups or families are more system-oriented than relationship oriented.  It also seems to matter whether the task and production process are within the family or involve one individual "selling" their skills and time to an employer.  An employer tends to see the efforts of a worker in terms of the amount of work that can be done in a certain clock period.  This tends to put value on the clock.

Some individuals are more sensitive to this kind of expectation or pressure than others.  So some individuals even in the same ethnicity or social group will be more concerned about responding to formal time demands than others.

Do attitudes about time change with the times?

Certainly.  "Culture" is time-bound.  Which social values are considered more important is determined by the pressures of the immediate setting.  In a stable situation, more structured requirements and procedures can be established and maintained.  Others live in a crisis setting or a subsistence situation, where the focal value is simply getting enough food to make it through the day or week.  Likewise these kinds of variations occur between families in the same society.

Time and History
For instance, I observe different views of time in periods of history.  I am a genealogist, and I have been fascinated in my genealogy research to observe how much the age of the same person varies from census to census.  In the 1800s and into the early 1900s in the United States, ages vary wildly in some families, and in certain regions, more than in others.

For example, in one census someone may be reported 45.  In the next census ten years later, the age difference might be 53, only 8 years more.  Or the age might be 57, 12 years older!  This was the case for my great grandfather Dock Patrick Gregory.  The form of name and spellings also varied considerably in censuses in those days.

The actual birth date is known from family sources as 8 September 1852.  Here are the census reports and the birth year they yield.  Census ages could vary up to two years due to difference of birth month and census month.  Note that the 1880 census yields a difference of 6 years!

1860 (Tenn) – Patrick, age 4, yields birth year of abt 1856
1870 (Tenn) – Patrick E., age 15, yields birth year of abt 1855
1880 (Tenn) – Patrick Gregory, age 22, yields birth year of abt 1858
1900 (Chickasaw Nation) – Doctor Gregory, age 44 yields birth year of abt 1856
1910 (Okla) – Dolf Gegery, age 56, yields birth year of abt 1854
1920 (Okla) – Dock G. Gregory, age 67, yields birth year of abt 1853
1930 (Okla) – Doc G. Gregory, age 78, yields birth year of abt 1852

I have seen variations of age between censuses from 5 years to 15.  And in some families there is no period of ten years in which the age has changed by 10 years!  Apparently how old they were, or the exact year in which they were born was not something these families focused on.  In some other regions or states, age patterns are more exact and uniform.

Cycles of Life
As we get into the 20th century, however, age reports become more exact and more regular.  In certain areas, however, like rural midwest and southwest, ages still vary considerably between censuses.  This seems to confirm a difference in culture value among groups by region and from one time period to the other in how important objective time is.

This somewhat tortuous detour was to illustrate that time as now mapped out and quantified by modern westerners is different from the concept of time as experienced and conceived by people living in concert with nature, whose lives are ordered by the cycles of life.

Age was seen not in terms of the calendar years that passed, perhaps, but in terms of the seasons of harvest that had been experienced.  Knowing ages and birthdays as objective facts with value in their own right grew to be a more important cultural value in the more structured, industrialized and scientific-minded recent modern era, basically after World War One.

What might be considered a healthy attitude toward time?

I think this depends totally on the values of the society one relates to or works in.  Most societies have a healthy view of "time," in their own worldview and social context.  What is "healthy" might be thought of as that which most promotes harmony or most supports the expectations of the group.

Skewed Expectations
Of course, expectations can also be pathological and destructive, so this has to be considered also.  But within each cultural context, that worldview has its values, expectations, incentives and value judgements.  "Healthy" would be different within each of those.  Stress often occurs where there is a class of expectations or of ability to meet those expectations, within a certain society for certain individuals.

I don’t know of any universal "objective" position from which we could pit one against another and objectively determine which is "better." They are different, and the stated or understood goals of the group or society would determine what would be be more or less accepted or encouraged.  I suppose "healthy" would be seen thus in relative terms across these societies.

Slowness Movements
Andrea mentioned what she called "slowness" movements.  This was a new term for me.  I wrote for clarification.  Here is what Andrea said:

"I was referring to the 'slow food' movements in Italy and elsewhere and the idea of a slower lifestyle that Carl Honore wrote about in 'In Praise of Slowness.'  Any comments?"

This appears to be a response to correct (or provide alternatives for) the mechanical schedule and the stress it causes for people in task-oriented clock-managed Europe.  This is an example of a form of correction that may arise within a certain cultural worldview, though the strong tide of "systems" often limits the effect of such movements in changing the overall orientation of the whole culture.  Most cultures and their worldviews provide mechanisms and procedures for introducing change and making correction to negative tendencies perceived in the culture.

Also related
Time A Cultural Concept
What Everyone Needs to Know (Before Communicating Across Cultures)


Originally written in response to an email query from a writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong researching cultural concepts of time, 15-18 August 2008
Article prepared and posted 12 December 2009
Last edited 1 Febuary 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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