Time in Different Cultures

Attitudes to time in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries is very different from that in time-conscious cultures like North America and Northern Europe
Attitudes to time in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries is very different from that in time-conscious cultures like North America and Northern Europe

Attitudes to time may differ between different cultures in often quite significant ways. For example, being late for an appointment, or taking a long time to get down to business, is the accepted norm in most Mediterranean and Arab countries, as well as in much of less-developed Asia. Such habits, though, would be anathema in punctuality-conscious USA, Japan, England, Switzerland, etc. In the Japanese train system, for example, “on time” refers to expected delays of less than one minute, while in many other countries, up to fifteen minutes leeway is still considered “on-time”.

Cultural attitudes to time also differ throughout history. The pace of modern Western life, with its fast food, express delivery, instant coffee, sell-by dates, speed-dating, speed-dialling, etc, as well as our reliance on clocks and the constant time pressure we seem to find ourselves under, would probably be absolutely incomprehensible to someone just a hundred years ago. Before transcontinental railways and the telegraph and the introduction of Standard Time in the 1880s (see the section on Time Standards), different countries, states, and even neighbouring towns, kept their own time with no attempt at consistency. Even though clocks, and later watches, were widely available, much of the world still estimated their time by the natural rhythms of the Sun and Moon until late into the 19th Century.

Time Orientation

One way of looking at cultural attitudes to time is in terms of time orientation, a cultural or national preference toward past, present, or future thinking. The time orientation of a culture affects how it values time, and the extent to which it believes it can control time. For example, America is often considered to be future-orientated, as compared to the more present-orientated France and the past-orientated Britain. Often (but not always), a past orientation arises in cultures with a long history, like India or China, and a future orientation in younger countries, like the USA.

Future-orientated cultures tend to run their lives by the clock. The United States is one of the fastest paced countries in the world, perhaps partly due to the fact that many Americans are always looking to the future, striving for the “American Dream”. It is a culture that values busy-ness, which equates a hectic and frenzied life-style with success, status and importance. Japan is also an extremely time-conscious culture, although the Japanese probably lay more emphasis on time management and efficient lifestyles than Americans, and consequently may feel less constantly rushed and frustrated.

Past-orientated cultures, like that of India, for example, are much more laid back in the way they look at time. Unlike in Japan, it is not unusual for trains in India to be several hours, or even a full day, late, without creating undue stress and turmoil. It is possible that such cultures, with thousands of years of history behind them, have such a long point of view that time at the scale of minutes, or even hours, becomes insignificant and inconsequential.

Pre-Industrial Cultures

Some cultures, though, appear to have little or no time orientation, and tend to exhibit not so much a relaxed attitude to time as no attitude at all. The Pirahã tribe of the Amazon rainforest is often mentioned in this context. The Pirahã have an extremely limited language based on humming and whistling. They have no numbers, letters or art, no words for colours, no specific religious beliefs and no creation myth. They also appear to have no real concept of time. Their language has no past tense, and everything exists for them only in the present: when they can no longer perceive something, it effectively ceases to exist for them.

The peaceful Hopi tribe of Arizona, USA, as well as some other Native American tribes, also have a language that lacks verb tenses, and their language avoids all linear constructions in time. The closest the Hopi language comes to a sense of time are one word meaning “sooner” and another meaning “later”. The Hopi appear to have little or no sense of linear time as most of the Western world knows it, and it comes as no surprise to learn that their religious beliefs include a cyclic view of time, similar to ancient Hindu and Buddhist belief in the “wheel of time” (see the section on Ancient Philosophy).

Many primitive agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies have very different attitudes to time and work than the industrialized West. The Kapauku of Papua New Guinea, for example, do not like to work on two consecutive days. The !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa work two-and-a-half days per week, typically six hours per day. In certain South Pacific islands, men typically work only four hours per day.


Chronemics is the study of the use of time, and the way that time is perceived and valued by individuals and cultures, particularly as regards non-verbal communication. These time perceptions include things like punctuality, willingness to wait, approaches to face-to-face interactions, and reactions to time pressure.

Different cultures may be considered to be:

  • Monochronic – where things are typically done one at a time, where time is segmented into precise, small units, and where time is scheduled, arranged and managed. In such a culture, time is viewed as a tangible commodity than can be spent, saved or wasted, and a paramount value is placed on regimented schedules, tasks and “getting the job done”. This perception of time is probably rooted in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Century, and the archetypal examples are the United States, Germany and Switzerland, to which could be added Britain, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and the Scandinavian countries.
  • Polychronic – where several things can be done at once, and a more fluid approach is taken to scheduling time. Such cultures tend to be less focused on the precise accounting of each and every moment, and much more steeped in tradition and relationships rather than in tasks. Polychronic cultures have a much less formal perception of time, and are not ruled by precise calendars and schedules. The arbitrary divisions of clock time and calendars have less importance to them than the cycle of the seasons, the invariant pattern of rural and community life, and the calendar of religious festivities. Many Latin American, African, Asian and Arab cultures fall into this category, especially countries like Mexico, Pakistan, India, rural China, the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
  • Variably Monochronic – a group of “in between” countries, including Russia, Southern Europe and much of East-Central Europe are sometimes referred to as variably monochronic cultures.

Even within a country, different sub-cultures may regard time quite differently. In the United States for example, Mexican-Americans differentiate between “hora inglesa” (the actual time on the clock) and “hora Mexicana” (which treats time considerably more casually); Hawaiians regularly juggle two time systems, the rigorous Haole (American) time and the much more lax Hawaiian time; and native Americans often distinguish between “Indian time” and regular time.

In today’s globalized world, understanding the time orientation of a culture is critical to the successful handling of diplomatic and business situations. Misunderstandings of chronemics can lead to a failure to understand intentions, especially in business communication. For example, monochronists may view polychronists as undisciplined, lazy, irresponsible and untrustworthy, while polychronists may consider monochronists to be obsessed with rules and formalities, and emotionally cold.

Pace of Life and Tempo
Japan is one of the fastest paced countries in the modern world

Around the world, different people live their daily lives at different tempos, and observe a different pace of life. This may be reflected in something as simple as the speed at which they walk, their attitudes to working, or just how accurately they keep their clocks.

Social psychologist Robert Levine has devoted much time to analyzing how different countries and different cultures deal with time. Some of his findings are perhaps unsurprising. For example, the fastest people were found in the wealthier North American, Northern European and industrialized Asian nations like Japan; the slowest were in non-industrialized and third-world countries, particularly those in South and Central America and the Middle East. The United States often vies with Japan for the fastest pace, although Switzerland is also a top contender, mainly because of the accuracy of its clocks.

However, the rationales behind some of these findings are often illuminating. Levine found that most of the differences are, to a large degree, predictable according to demographic, economic and environmental characteristics. For example, people tend to move faster in places with vital economies, a high degree of industrialization, larger populations, cooler climates and a cultural orientation toward individualism.

According to Levine, the number one determinant of a country’s tempo is economics: the economic health of the country as a whole, the average income earned by the average citizen, and how well-fed they are. Places with active economies put greater value on time, and places that value time are more likely to have active economies, in a mutually reinforcing cycle. Consequently, in almost all cases, the wealthier the society, the faster it tends to move.

Closely linked to economic health as a factor in the pace of life is industrialization. Anthropologist Allen Johnson has described an evolutionary progression produced by industrialization from a “time surplus” society to a “time affluence” society to a “time famine” society, the latter being how he characterizes most developed industrialized countries.

After economic well-being and industrialization, the single strongest predictor of differences in tempo is population size. The strict clock time of the modern world is imposed most strongly in large, vibrant cities. People in bigger cities move faster than their counterparts in smaller towns and rural areas. In one study of the behaviour of children in supermarkets and stores, the average city child was shown to walk nearly twice as fast as their small-town equivalents, and spent a third of the time interacting with clerks and other shoppers, and significantly less time physically touching objects in the store. Other studies have found an almost perfect correlation between population size and walking speed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, life tends to be slower in hotter places, and there is a strong correlation between the climate (as measured by average maximum temperatures) and how slow the tempo of life is. This could result from a general lack of energy in the debilitating heat, or just the fact that people in warmer climates simply take the time to enjoy life.

It is also apparent that a culture’s basic value system is also reflected in its norms about tempo. For example, individualistic cultures tend to move faster than those that emphasize collectivism. In the United States, a classic individualistic culture, people tend to move fast and time is at a premium. On the other hand, in traditional Asian countries like Pakistan, India, Tibet and Nepal, where typically many people share large homes with their extended families, the pace is slow. Individualistic cultures tend to focus on achievement, which usually leads to a “time-is-money” mindset in which there is an urgency to make every moment count. In cultures where social relationships take precedence, however, there is a much more relaxed attitude toward time.

Time Discipline

Time discipline is a field in sociology and anthropology which looks at the economic rules, conventions, customs, and expectations governing the measurement of time in different societies and throughout history. The field was pioneered in 1967 by E.P. Thompson, who argued that the observance of clock-time is a consequence of the European industrial revolution, and that the imposition of synchronic forms of time and work discipline by governments and capitalist interests was an essential factor in the development of industrial capitalism and the creation of the modern state. Earlier, pre-industrial societies had different views of time, often imposed by religious and other social authorities, and flowing from the collective wisdom of human societies.

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