January 25, 2013 - â€śWhat time
is it?â€ť is not a question that usually provokes a lot of soul-searching. Itâ€™s generally taken for granted that even if we donâ€™t know the correct time, a correct time does exist and that everyone on the planetâ€”whatever time zone they happen to be inâ€”follows the same clock.University of Missouri
management scholar Allen Bluedorn believes time itself is a social construction. â€śWhat any group of people think about time ends up being a result of them interacting with each other and socialization processes,â€ť he says.
We measure time not simply in terms of minutes and seconds, but in terms of concepts such as â€śearly,â€ť â€ślateâ€ťâ€”or, for that matter, â€śfashionably late.â€ť What is the length of a â€śwork dayâ€ť? In the United States, Europe and Japan youâ€™ll get three different answers.
Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance, if not outright resistance. Historically, countries have not eagerly embraced the global clockâ€”theyâ€™ve felt compelled to do so because of the demands of commerce.
The U.S. national time standard, for instance, didnâ€™t emerge until 1883, when it was adopted by the railroads, which needed to maintain common timetables. Before that, cities largely kept their own local time, and many were not happy to have big government and big railroads force standardization on them. â€śLet the people of Cincinnati
stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,â€ť editorialized one newspaper when the changeover was going into effect.
The era of globalization may be finishing the job, as information technology and the international supply chain knit nations together more tightly than ever.
But while itâ€™s possible to synchronize clocks, synchronizing cultures has proven more challenging. One commonly recounted example is a group of American bankers in Mexico
who found that their Mexican colleagues were frequently scheduling meetings for hours after they planned to head home for the day.
The famed American anthropologist Edward T. Hall
argued that many of these differences are based upon whether a country is â€śmono- chronicâ€ť or â€śpolychronic.â€ť In monochronic societies, including Europe and the United States, time is perceived as fixed and unchanging, and people tend to complete tasks sequentially. In polychronic societies, including Latin America and much of Asia, time is more fluid and people adapt more easily to changing circumstances and new information.California State University
social psychologist Robert Levine conducted an experiment to determine the â€śtempoâ€ť of 31 countries, using measures such as the efficiency of local post offices and the accuracy of public clocks. He found that Switzerland, Ireland and Germany were the fastest countries while Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia
were the slowest.
But how long will these cultural differences persist? Will trade and globalization iron them out as effectively as the railroads did away with Cincinnatiâ€™s proud city time?
Levine feels that life will inevitably speed up in some countries, but that mental differences will linger. â€śYou can find quotes throughout history of people saying that life is getting faster and looking back nostalgically on the slower, older days,â€ť he says. â€śBut whether in peopleâ€™s reality things actually feel faster than they did, thatâ€™s a tough one to measure.â€ť
Bluedorn believes that â€śpeople are just going to become more aware of temporal differences in different cultures.â€ť In fact, he worries about what would be lost in a culturally synchronized world. Monochronic and polychronic perspectives both have their advantages, he argues. â€śFast isnâ€™t always best; nor is slow.â€ť