America For Beginners

Bringing American culture closer to new immigrants

Time Perception in American Culture

In a world where time cannot be measured, there are no clocks, no calendars, no definite appointments. Events are triggered by other events, not by time. A house is begun when stone and lumber arrive at the building site. The stone quarry delivers stone when the quarryman needs money. The barrister leaves home to argue a case at the Supreme Court when his daughter makes a joke about his growing bald. Education at the gymnasium in Berne is concluded when the student has passed his examinations. Trains leave the station at the Bahnhofplatz when the cars are filled with passengers. 

from Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

The article “Do Cultures Segment Time Differently” by Lawrence T. White, Ph.D., comments on fascinating, recently done analysis of time perception in different cultures.

It mentions the works of social psychologist Robert Levine (A Geography of Time) and eminent anthropologist Edward T. Hall (The Silent Language), both of whom contributed to the study of time segmentation and cognitive processes related to that matter. Levine and Hall both observed that, “Americans segment time more precisely than Arabs”. They failed to present any empirical proof to their conclusions, however.

In search of empirical evidence, contemporary scientists Raivo Valk, Abdessamad Dialmly, and Lawrence T. White conducted their own research. As a result, 300 participants (university students) from Estonia, Morocco, and the United States helped to validate the theory of culturally determined time perception.

As it turnes out, most Americans tend to estimate time in 5-minute intervals whereas most Moroccans mentally divide an hour into 15-minute segments (with Estonians leaning toward Moroccans).

What it means in real life is that standards of punctuality often have sociocultural nature. As Lawrence T. White puts it,

An American who arrives 10 minutes after the appointed time is late by “two units of psychological time”.  A Moroccan who is also running late by two units will arrive 30 minutes after the appointed time.

Moroccans might also feel less guilty for being late as a consequence of their cultural framework rather than as a sign of disrespect.

This information gives us important insights into the concepts of punctuality and common courtesy showing that different cultures view time in different segments. This realization is of great importance for people who work/live in multicultural environments, travel a lot, etc.  Basically, it’s important for every American, especially since the concept of time plays such a great role in American culture. The Protestant work ethic introduced the “time is money” mindset and it has been very strong ever since. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

There is an opinion that, as a culture, Americans are very impatient. Because of the stress of time and constant lack thereof, Americans have great urgency to do things before it’s too late. As a result, people tend to become stressed, nervous, and angry if they’re running late for an appointment or being behind a certain deadline.

  • American impatience with time can be well illustrated in a restaurant context. If people have to wait to be seated (the restaurant is packed full/ they have no reservation/etc.), they want to know exactly how long it’s going to take. Many customers ask the host for very precise wait time estimation (Is it 25 or 30 minutes for 3 people??) and get very frustrated when they have to wait more than promised.  Anyone who has an idea of how restaurants work knows that if you’re asked to wait, you’re basically waiting for someone else to finish their meal and for bussers to clean and reset the table. As skilled and experienced as hosts can be, they simply cannot foresee the future and predict whether this particular couple will finish their desserts in 5 or 15 minutes.
  • My other observation is time perception in Brazilian culture, where 2-3 minutes often translate into up to 10 minutes. So, is that nice Brazilian chef lying that the foo will be ready in 3 minutes to make things sound better or is he not aware of how long it takes to cook a paella? None of the above. Most likely, he’s just operating within his cultural time perception and estimation paradigm where 3 minutes is not too far from 10 minutes and, consequently, not that big of a deal.

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One comment on “Time Perception in American Culture

  1. drgeraldstein
    November 24, 2012

    Interesting essay. I recall reading that time perception was much different before transportation was sufficiently advanced to allow people to get from one place to another in a predictable way. For example, if you were coming from anything but a short distance, there was no sense or expectation of being “on time.”

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