A Geography of Time

A Geography of Time
A Geography of Time

A Geography of Time: the temporal misadventures of a social psychologist, or how every culture keeps time just a little bit differently by Robert Levine

Levine’s book explores the way that different cultures perceive time and how that correlates to a variety of different facets of society.  Levine’s researchers measured time in 31 cities of varying sizes by timing how fast it took people to walk 60 feet and how long it took postal clerks to sell a stamp and make change.  The researchers then compared those numbers to a wide variety of statistical measures to learn what effect the tempo of a place has on the lives of the people who live there.   It’s an interesting book, but took a long time to get through (pun intended!).  A few tidbits:

  • Levine identifies a number of binaries for we readers to consider.  He connects different cultures to clock time and event time.  Clock time tends to associate with affluence and a high standard of living, but also with coronary disease. Eep!
  • The history of clock time is pretty fascinating — standardized clock time was driven by two forces, mainly: railroads and weather forecasters.  If you think about it, both these groups desperately need standardized times in order to deliver their services properly.  When standardized clock time was introduced, locals often got downright angry: “Why should Cincinnati set our clocks by Philadelphia time?!”
  • The biggest lesson from the book is that different cultures need to learn about one another’s habits and perceptions of time in order to collaborate.  He explains many ideas about lateness, for instance, that confound Americans when we go abroad.  There are particular rules in every culture that determine who waits for whom, when waiting is necessary, and when it’s rude to leave someone waiting.
  • One of the most interesting bits is Levine’s discussion of the way time perception influences child success in school.  He cites a study of Chicago children from low income homes whose home lives reflected event time more than clock time, often because of the circumstances around low-income life.  These children, used to setting their own pace, are bewildered by the pace and expectations of school life, and are often subsequently labeled as developmentally disabled.  The researcher who did the study has since been working on a series of classes to help students learn about time expectations.

Levine also makes a point late in the book to argue that much of what we perceive about right and wrong with regard to how we interact with people comes from these perceptions.  One example he uses is the fact that the Japanese use a nuanced system to articulate yes and no, while Americans do not.  Thus, trade negotations often result in miscommunications or perceptions that the Japanese are duplicitous or Americans are too dumb to understand subtlety. At the same time, Levine is a bit too willing, in my opinion, to let these cultural differences define things.  The one moment that stood out in the book was on page 111:

There is a practice in many Arab cultures whereby a young woman who is caught being intimate with a man she is not married to is sometimes murdered by her brothers.  To Westerners, this is uncivilized behavior.  But the brother is committed to protecting the role of an important institution–the family–in the social pattern.  It is his responsibility.  The sister is a sacred, inviolable link between families and it is imperative to the survival of the social order that she remain above reproach. (111)

Astonishingly, Levine uses this argument to make the point that different perspectives of time aren’t necessarily better or worse, just different.  It seems to me that people traveling between cultures need, more than anyone, a solid foundation from which to judge acts appropriate or inappropriate, moral or immoral.  These acts should spring from first principles, thoughtfully articulated and carefully reasoned.  Among the most crucial of these principles would seem to be the inviolability of life.  To suggest that a family’s honor should be worth more than a sister’s life is to fall into cultural relativism, an ethical sinkhole, by my reckoning.

This lapse aside, it’s a really interesting book, well worth a skim and possibly worth a deep dip.

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