Notes on Intercultural Communication

A Geography of Time

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Robert Levine – A Geography of Time

The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently

(…) As Miles Davis said, “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” How we construct and use our time, in the end, defines the texture and quality of our existence. To seize control over the structure of one’s time is my own definition of what it means, as it is said in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, to avoid “devoting thyself to the useless doings of this life.” And that, more than anything, is what I have taken away from my studies of the time senses of other cultures. Borrowing again from Russell Banks’s image of Hawthorne’s Wakefield: I had moved out of my house and this is what appeared when I looked back to “see what’s true there.” Simply that. (…)

In each country, we went into one or more of the major cities in order to measure three indicators of the tempo of life.


First, we measured the average walking speed of randomly selected pedestrians over a distance of 60 feet.


The second experiment focused on an example of speed in the workplace: the time it took postal clerks to fulfill a standard request for stamps. In each city, we presented clerks with a note in the local language requesting a common stamp—the now standard 32-center in the United States, for example. They were also handed paper money—the equivalent of a $5 bill. We measured the elapsed time between the passing of the note and the completion of the request.

Third, as an estimate of a city’s interest in clock time, we observed the accuracy of 15 randomly selected bank clocks in main downtown areas in each city. Times on the 15 clocks were compared to those reported by the phone company.

The three scores for each country were then statistically combined into an overall pace-of-life score.


Geography of Time Fast Countries

Geography of Time Slow Countries


We can speculate about the direction of causality between the tempo of life and economic conditions. Most likely, the arrow points both ways. Places with active economies put greater value on time, and places that value time will be more likely to have active economies. Economic variables and the tempo tend to be mutually reinforcing; they come in a package.


It is one of the great ironies of modern times that, with all of our time-saving creations, people have less time to themselves than ever before. Life in the Middle Ages is usually portrayed as bleak and dreary, but one commodity people had more of than their successors was leisure time. Until the Industrial Revolution, in fact, most evidence suggests that people showed little inclination to work. In Europe through the Middle Ages, the average number of holidays per year was around 115 days. It is interesting to note that still today, poorer countries take more holidays, on the average,than richer ones.


Our results confirmed the hypothesis: greater individualism was highly related to faster tempos.


How we define and measure our time does, in fact, border on the religious. And people do not change religions lightly.


Since our own study found a very strong relationship between economic vitality and the pace of life, we hypothesized that this should also lead to a positive relationship between the pace of life and happiness. And this is exactly what we found: in all of our pace-of-life experiments, people in faster places were more likely to be satisfied with their lives.


It is in the middle ground between too much and too little pressure that people enter the experience, described in an earlier chapter, called “flow.” When Csikszentmihalyi kept tabs on people by having them wear beepers, asking them at frequent intervals what they were engaged in and how good they felt, the most positive reports came when people were in moderately challenging activities that engaged their skills. People doing too many things at once tended to be overstressed. But those who were doing nothing at all experienced little sense of flow and little pleasure. Many contemporary psychologists believe the flow experience is an important key to a happy and satisfying life. Studies have shown that flow experiences are not only exhilarating but empowering: they raise self-esteem, competence, and one’s overall sense of well-being.

My own studies, we have seen, point to the mixed consequences of a rapid pace of life. People in faster environments are more prone to potentially deleterious stress, as evidenced by higher rates of coronary heart disease; but they are also more likely to achieve a comfortable standard of living and, at least in part because of this, are more satisfied with their lives as a whole.

Download the full pdf here. (C) 1997 Robert Levine All rights reserved.

(received 12.07.2013 at


See also Arrow, Circle, Spiral and Cylinder – Different Conceptions of Time and History and Map of Happiness.

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