Several years back I was in Senegal with a friend waiting to be served some lunch. The time was a little past midday, the weather of the hottish variety, we were the only ones in the restaurant and had been waiting over an hour when I spotted something that perturbed me. It was three women peeling potatoes.
Typically, a sight such as this is not one that would unnerve me. I, being a man worldly in scope, have witnessed women peeling ‘taties before. What perturbed me, rather, was the spectacle’s implication. That, after an hour already, my cooks had only just made a start on my chips.
Any who have travelled overseas will no doubt have experienced similar frustrations. Across the globe, the various commitments appended to time’s passing are treated differently. For most travellers, what this typically translates to is a vague awareness that some cultures approach time at a slower (or faster) pace and that more importance, or less of it, is accorded to punctuality. Promptitude is still promptitude however; tardiness still tardiness – it’s just that the latter is more socially acceptable in some places than others. The truth, however, is that this only goes halfway in unraveling the issue. Because not only is time something that’s treated differently in different cultures; in some cultures, time itself actually operates differently.
Northern European time
To kick things off, let’s take a look at the take on time that most of us are probably best acquainted with: the ‘Northern European’ one.
Without the time to delve into the history of Western civilization here, let’s suffice it to say that ‘Northern European time’ largely developed from a background of Modernist beliefs in progress and Judeo-Christian notions of an afterlife. Basically, the future had the potential to be better, and this existence was proceeded by another – either in perpetual paradise (yay) or eternal damnation (boo…). So it was best to be good.
From this future-focused thinking evolved an outlook in which one’s actions in the present came to be considered a fairly reliable determinant of where one could be in the future. And time was carved up correspondingly. Days were divvied up into various allotments – work time, family time, lunchtime, home time – and great effort expended in eliminating future unknowables. There were appointments one was expected to stick to and deadlines one was expected to meet. There were 8-hour workdays, weekends, holidays and (eventually) retirement. Salaries advised how much one could expect to make in a year, and also how much superannuation one was accruing for the twilight years. German trains would run to their timetable even if empty, Switzerland built a global reputation on the precision of their time-measuring devices and citizens of the ‘free world’ were told they could become anything they wanted so long they worked long enough hours – and hard enough during them.
Latin and Arabic time
By contrast, in Latin and Arabic countries – where climates were typically less predictable and the binds of family stronger – planning too far into the future often stood a bit of a futile endeavor. Class and nepotism regularly thwarted expectations of rising through the ranks, God’s will would determine what would be anyway, and sometimes it was simply just too hot to keep commitments.
Governed by such contingencies, it was thus considered far better to apportion time and effort to life’s constancies: enjoying the present, preferably over good food in the presence of family and loved ones. Such cultures are what cross-culture studies expert Richard Lewis came to term ‘multi-active’. Events, he argued, were held to have a nature of their own, and the success of one’s day was determined by how successfully one blended family time with work time. Hence why meetings in Spain are rarely scheduled back-to-back, Guatemalan busses aren’t renowned for their punctuality and several generations will often work together in family businesses across the Middle East. Time here is more elastic, more malleable, more c’est la vie.
In many Asian cultures, time is generally thought of as cyclical, wholly indifferent to human whims and absurdly abundant. So much time is there believed to be in fact, that whatever events and opportunities occupy it will at some stage both come around again… and have occurred some time already. By time’s tick, the planets rotate, the seasons return, the sun and moon rise and fall and rise again. Disasters occur, their effects subside, people leave existence and new ones enter it – some even as animals. The best humans can do, the Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist philosophies maintain, is roll along in the spirit of time’s timelessness. The future will come… but in a sense it’s already been. Hence the emphasis in many Asian cultures on ancestral worship, careful decision-making and the transcending of time through meditation. To engage with the future you must first consult the past. To rush is to invite folly.
To lump indigenous, African and nomadic cultures into the one category is obviously a little problematic. Just as individuals within the same culture will have different attitudes to timeliness and tardiness, plenty of exceptions to each of the above-listed frameworks exist. San Bushmen’s conception of time will differ greatly from that of Nuer pastoralists and the Chinese place much greater emphasis on promptitude than the Laotians.
What can be distinguished among many of the world’s cultures that practice a subsistence level of existence, however, is a greater focus on the past and present than the future. In environments where the elements treat humans harshly and food can be scarce, simply getting through each day is first priority. In Malagasy culture, reports Lewis, where the future flows past a person from behind, the situation rather than the prospect triggers the event. Busses only leave when full of passengers and stores’ stocks are only replenished once exhausted. In indigenous Australian cosmologies, the present, past and future run along as one through a notion known as the Dreaming. The Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon, suggested Daniel Everett, don’t even have a word for ‘future’ in their vocabulary.
Back to the chips…
To a man waiting on chips, none of these insights will of course make him any less hungry. Hunger is hunger and chips are the best. But the awareness that lateness is only lateness from my own cultural standpoint has stopped many a tanty in its tracks on my travels since. Time waits for no man, and, like everything, is merely what we understand it to be. Other people interpret it differently, and it’s on the outsider to fit into that framework. To travel is to enter new worlds, encounter alternative realities and interact with foreign cultures. Think of it also as to travel through times.
Feature image c/o Hometown Beauty, Flickr