“A Geography of Time – the temporal misadventures of a social psychologist” was timely reading as I attempt to reconcile the differences between Ghana time and my own westernized tempo. It occurs to me that culture shock is mostly about adjusting our pace to that of our new surroundings. Or at least to understanding at what tempo the ‘new’ culture operates.
In order to satisfy his curiosity about cultural differences in the pace of life, Robert Levine gathered data in thirty-one countries including the United States, Kenya, Brazil, Singapore, Greece, Switzerland, Italy and China. Geography of Time does a good job of explaining the components of time and pace, putting forth theories based on the research and balancing it all with anecdotes.
I very much enjoyed chapter one, “Tempo: The Speed of Life.” Levine points out that in wealthier and more industrialized countries where “time is money” citizens naturally march to an accelerated beat. Likewise, life slows down in hotter climates. I can attest to that as I sit here sweating through another 90-degree day. But I was surprised to learn that “A culture’s basic value system is also reflected in its norms about tempo.”
While aware of the differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures, I had not made a connection between the “It’s all about me” culture and a rapid pace of life. However, a fast-paced culture doesn’t always preclude a sense of belonging. In the chapter titled “Japan’s Contradiction” Levine explores a culture that is both fast-paced and collectivist.
Here in Ghana temporal differences plague ex-pats who are trying to get things done. Appointments are often treated as invitations rather than commitments. Emails are answered in weeks rather than days or not at all. While I appreciate living in a culture where people always have time to properly greet one another, I’m often frustrated at having to wait.
As with any good book, this one provided much food for thought. And while I was tempted to conclude that slower is better, I came to understand that a slow pace of life doesn’t work for everyone. I found Levine’s checklist of time-related behaviors very helpful in understanding my personal tempo. Apparently, I am very much a results-driven person.
Levine points out the correlation between heart disease and Type A behavior. But he also shares data indicating that Type A behavior is not the culprit; being out of synch with your environment is. In other words, a laid back person in a Type A environment will suffer just as much from temporal dissonance as a Type A personality in a slower paced environment.
I was inspired by the stories of people who are ‘literate’ in several tempos and so can choose to accelerate or decelerate as the occasion requires. Certainly I see many Ghanaians who are able to meet commitments in a timely manner without losing their social skills along the way.
I also found the concept of Event Time vs. Clock Time very illuminating. It helps, Levine cautions, to understand up front which kind of culture you are working with. But as I thought about this, I realized that in interpersonal relationships, the awareness of clock time shifts from one person to the other depending on who is waiting for whom to finish their ‘event.’
Possibly the wisest words in the book are about “attribution error” in the chapter on “Time Literacy”:
Don’t criticize what you don’t understand… Almost by definition, cultural behaviors signify something very different to insiders than they do to the visitor…For example, when I hear strangers lose their temper, I infer that they must be angry people. When I lose my own temper, I blame it on the situation…When we enter foreign environments – which are, by definition, alien – the fundamental attribution error is an accident waiting to happen.
What I take away from this book is the understanding that I am as responsible for setting my own pace as I am for understanding and working within the pace of my environment. This is my year to take control of my time and, as Levine wrote “understand that my time truly is my time.”
The video below, an RSA Animate by Professor Philip Zimbardo mentions “A Geography of Time” and is the reason I bought the book.