Time in Our Lives: The Role of Time in Various Cultures
Not everyone in the world views the concept of time in the same way. In fact, some cultures don’t even make time a part of their lives. Some cultures are wary of time passing by, while others run their lives by the clock. Imagine for a moment what would happen if you took someone living in a hectic society controlled by time and let them switch lives with a second person living in a culture without time. How do you think the two individuals would react? Would the first person be able to function without a schedule? Would the second be able to function with one? This article explores three distinct versions of cultures and their views on time: cultures run by time, cultures without time, and cultures with unique perspectives on time. Each category gives two examples of specific cultures which represent that category.
Cultures Run by Time
- The United States of America: It would be safe to say that, very often, the cultures that are run by time are those which appear to have the fastest pace. The United States—as one of the fastest paced societies of the world—fits this idea completely. (To learn more about the pace of life in different cultures, see our article on pace). Most people from the United States can honestly say that they often feel rushed. This may be partly due to the fact that many Americans strive for the “American Dream,”—the epitome of success, luxury and happiness. The concept is often regarded as an illusion; yet but pressuring its citizens to constantly do more, earn more, and consume more—in order to achieve more—the ideals of American society drive people to constantly be in a hurried state of mind. Time decides when Americans make their appointments, when they do their work, and even how they spend their leisure time. “For many Americans the ‘free moments’ that once glued a busy life together have almost disappeared” (Whybrow 159). In the United States, time is undoubtedly in control of the everyday lives of most people.
- Japan: The Japanese live lives that are run by time, as do the Americans. Still, the Japanese tend to feel less rushed and frustrated with this fact than the Americans do; they seem to have achieved a greater handle on time management and extremely efficient lifestyles. The Japanese run on time because of their extremely low tolerance for tardiness and delay. If American deadlines and meeting times are said to be strict, than the same aspects in Japanese culture would be even stricter. A great example of this rigid view toward promptness can be seen in the Japanese train system.
“In most European railway systems, a ‘delay’ is defined as ‘10-15 minutes behind schedule.’ In other words, for example, ‘14 minutes behind schedule’ is still counted as ‘on time.’ This is how European railway companies are able to obtain high punctuality. On the other hand, the definition of ‘delay’ in Japan is more severe; only trains with less than a minute’s delay is defined as ‘on time.’” (Mito)
Cultures without Time
- The Pirahã Tribe: This small native tribe of the Amazon rainforest has an extremely limited language of humming and whistling (Davies). They use no numbers, letters, or art; and—more importantly—no concept of time. Specialists such as linguist Dan Everett have traveled to the isolated Pirahã villages of Brazil in order to attempt to teach the tribe how to read and write (Davies). Their attempts have generally been unsuccessful. To even consider introducing the concept of time to this tribe would be foolish, as their concept of numbers is non existant. They have no specific religious beliefs—no reverence to ancestors or heroes of the past.
There is no past tense…because everything exists for them in the present. When it can no longer be perceived, it ceases, to all intents, to exist… The linguistic limitations of this "carpe diem" culture explain why the Pirahã have no desire to remember where they come from and why they tell no stories. (Davies) So, although it may be difficult for many people in time-dependent cultures to understand the ways of the Pirahã tribe, there is an important lesson in their relaxed lifestyle—encouraging people to live every moment for what it’s worth.
- The Hopi Tribe: The Hopi Indian tribe is known for their interesting language: due to its lack of verb tenses and resulting omission of any conception of time. The closest that the Hopi language comes to a sense of time are two words in the entire language: one meaning “sooner” and another meaning “later” (Le Lionnais). The Hopi tribes live, for the most part, in northeast Arizona. They make their homes atop flattened sections of hills called Mesas, in villages called “pueblos” (“Hopi Indians”). The Hopi Indians are also well known for being a very peaceful tribe.
Cultures with Unique Views on Time
- Nomadic Tribes of Afghanistan and Iran: These peoples of nomadic tribes do not feel tied down by time in any other for than the seasons. In the spring, they migrate from the valleys to the mountains, where they will find richer and more abundant grasslands for their animals (Goudsmit and Claiborne 21). When the warm days of summer have passed, the nomads head back to the valleys from which they came in spring. Often this is a fairly long journey. This cycle continues throughout their entire lives.
- Asian Buddhist Culture: Although the system of months that so many people live by today is a lunar concept, the strictly lunar aspect is sometimes given little thought. Buddhists have a stricter lunar calendar, because the moon has always been to them “…an object of wonder and veneration” (Goudsmit and Claiborne 23). Buddhist monks meet for prayer twice in one lunar month, at the beginning and end of the lunar cycle. The Buddhist calendar consists of 12 months. Throughout the year, the days in each month alternate from 29 to 30 (“Buddhist Calendar”)—making each month shorter, on average, than the months that many other modern societies are used to.
- “Buddhist Calendar.” www.astraltraveler.com. 1 Apr. 2007.
- Davies, Elizabeth. “Unlocking the Secret Sounds of Language: Life without Time or Numbers.” The Independent Online. 6 May 2006.
- Goudsmit, Samuel A., and Robert Claiborne. Time. Life Science Library. New York: Time-Life, 1966.
- "Hopi Indians." 18 Mar. 2007.
- Le Lionnais, François. The Orion Book of Time. English translation ed. New York, NY: Orion, 1960.
- Mito, Yuko. “Corporate Culture as Strong Diving Force for Punctuality- Another ‘Just in Time.’” Hitachi-Rail.com. 25 Mar. 2007.
- Whybrow, Peter C., M.D. American Mania: When More is Not Enough. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.