By on November 1, 2010 in Culture, Uncategorized

“Let us adopt geologic time. Then – time being money — there will be no more poverty.” – Mark Twain

What Makes You Tick?

For watch-wearers there is a steady science behind the passing of time. Numbers on a clock represent hours, and as the hand moves around the dial of the clock, time passes. There is nothing up for discussion about 5:00 pm – it is a concrete time of the day, during which certain, expected things occur – people get off work, kids get picked up from daycare, dinner is prepped, and the evening begins.

But time is not as straightforward as it seems. In fact, there are countless ways of understanding time. There are cultures whose entire organizational pattern is based around time, like the United States, but also places like East Africa, where time is less literal and more figurative, where people are less anxious about counting seconds.

The pace of a community, and the things that are important culturally, are often determined by that community’s unique understanding of time.

The Beginning of Time

At the Pyramids of Giza, in Ireland and Mexico, and across the world, there are ancient monuments that bear time-telling significance.

Ancient Egyptians are credited with being the first people to take time keeping seriously. Around 3500 B.C., they built obelisks – tall four-sided tapered monuments- and placed them in strategic locations around town, enabling citizens to tell the time by the length of the shadow cast from the sun, creating communal sun-dials.

The Maya of meso-America provide another example of early time-keeping success. On the spring equinox the shadows of the sun hit El Castillo pyramid, at Chicen Itza in the present day Yucatan, in just the right way to trace out an immense snake slithering down the steps of the pyramid, which then connected with a stone “head” on the ground, forming a dazzling representation of their “feathered-serpent” deity. The shadow-snake only appears on the spring equinox, and as the ancient Mayans would watch the shadows on El Castillo, they marked winter passing into spring.

Eventually, new time keeping inventions replaced the elaborate architectural structures of the Egyptians and Mayans, and from sun dials to water clocks, time telling became mechanical.

Time for Change

In Salisbury, England, it is still possible to visit the oldest clock in the world, built in 1386. These first mechanical clocks were huge contraptions, rigged inside towers. It was typical for these clocks to run about 2 hours off schedule a day – and people were blown-away by their accuracy. Contrast a concept of time where two-hours off is considered accurate, to our modern concepts of exact, down to the millisecond time – as measured, say, by the world’s most precise Atomic clock – and it is clear just how much time has changed as the times have changed. As time keeping has become more exact, the human concept of time has become more precise and increasingly incorporated into every moment of our lives.


Although people across the world now share access to accurate time telling devices, different cultures still handle concepts of time very differently. In fact, recent studies have shown that location has a lot to do with perceptions of time. The closer a community is to the equator, the less the seasons change throughout the year. Because of the seasonal stability close to the equator, there is less focus on time passing, and therefore a bias towards the here and now – the present. In communities further away from the equator, the passing of time signifies drastic differences in weather and climate, and as a result, people tend to watch the time more consciously.

One example of the equatorial difference can be seen in Italy. The northern half of Italy considers itself future-oriented, success-driven, and intent on keeping track of time. Meanwhile in the southern part of Italy, which is closer to the equator, the Sicilians consider themselves present-minded. In Sicily there is a great emphasis on family, good food, and a slower, more “in the moment” pace of life. In fact, in the Sicilian dialect, there is no future tense verb. There is “was” and “is”, but no “will be”.

Time is of the Essence

While we all begin life like the present minded Sicilians, North Americans are groomed to snap out of that mindset almost immediately. North America is one of the fastest paced places in the world, and much of that derives from our pursuit of “success”.

But anyone who’s been to Africa knows that there is less of an emphasis on timekeeping there. People who live in Africa are used to a public system that does not allow for excessive punctuality. They are used to planes, buses and trains that are slow and unreliable, and have had to adjust their concept of time accordingly. While it is quite common to see North Americans having a full blown tantrum when they experience a long line or bad traffic, people living in Africa are less likely to get stressed out when things run late because they never owned the assumption that things would run on time anyways.

Take Your Time

Imagine what it would be like to take a person who lives in a hectic, time controlled society and have them switch places with a person who lives in a culture that has a casual relationship with time. Now that’s culture shock! Many people who express feelings of this type of culture-shock when they travel abroad are probably reacting to the different pace of life in the foreign country they’re visiting. Our own Eddie Frank experiences this all the time. Fortunately for him, he is “timeless” and is able to adapt quite well. It’s even possible that most cross-cultural conflicts are conflicts in time perspective, and by simply understanding our own perspective, we can better understand others.

But no matter how differently cultures perceive time –– there’s one thing on which all people do agree: time waits for no one.

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