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Is there time to slow down?

As the world speeds up, how cultures define the elastic nature of time may affect our environmental health

By Rhea WesselSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 9, 2003


At the start of a new year, with resolutions fresh on the drawing board, how we gauge time - as individuals and as a society - seems more pressing.

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Yet often a culture's sense of time is so ingrained that few people consider it in a broader context until they come smack into contact with people who tick at a different speed and operate under different assumptions.

"Our beliefs about time are some of the most basic we hold in life," says Allen Bluedorn, the author of "The Human Organization of Time" and a professor of management at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

An exhibit in Mannheim, Germany, called "All the Time in the World: Of Clocks and Other Witnesses of Time," serves as a catalyst for considering the speed at which we live our lives and how this has developed over the ages.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall defined two broad cultural approaches to time. Polychronic people, he said, are involved with many things at once, while monochronic cultures emphasize doing one thing at a time. Monochronism was a learned product of the Industrial Revolution but seems almost a natural form of time because of its prevalence in the Western world. Northern Europe and North America tend to be monochronic, while Mediterranean cultures and Latin America are polychronic.

South and Southeast Asia are considered polychronic, but Japan is monochronic, and China is somewhere in between.

Polychronic people change plans frequently, consider schedules as goals instead of imperatives, and focus on relationships with people. Monochronic cultures emphasize the opposite. People stick to the plan, emphasize promptness, and are accustomed to short-term relationships.

Professor Bluedorn's work draws on Hall's thinking and has documented cultural clashes caused by different time conceptions. In 1908, for instance, the Russian team showed up at the Olympics in London 12 days late because it was using the Julian calendar, while the Olympics were scheduled on the Gregorian. And, in at least one case, a European army missed its rendezvous on the battlefield because of different understandings of time, Bluedorn says.

Another, more contemporary, example is the story of American and Mexican bankers who discovered they both had different definitions of the workday, Bluedorn says. The Mexicans worked into the evenings when the American team wanted to go home. After several meetings were set for 7:30 p.m. and the Mexican team arrived late, the two compromised. The Americans agreed to extend their workday and the Mexicans agreed to show up on time.

Our imbedded polychronic and monochronic notions mean that many cultures that appear the same actually have deeply ingrained differences. Even among their Western capitalist counterparts, Americans have a reputation for being shallow because they form "friendships" quickly and appear to fail at enjoying the slower pleasures in life - such as long meals and walks.

Haste makes waste