Why Different Cultures Interpret Time Differently

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Ask most Americans on the east coast how to define “time” and chances are they’ll respond with the same phrase: Time is money.

Those famous words are often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, as they appear in an essay the Founding Father penned in 1748.

To see the manifestation of Franklin’s phrase, all you have to do is walk the streets of midtown Manhattan during the workweek. If you’ve never been, just imagine a gathering of a tremendous amount of souls, each zigzagging through the loud city’s grid at superhuman speeds as they hustle to the office, the subway, the bar.

At first glance, those unfamiliar with the pace of The City That Never Sleeps will certainly be caught off guard. But before they know it, they’ll find themselves walking faster than they’ve known to be possible—it’s just the way it is.

When you find yourself in San Francisco—3,000 miles to the west but in the United States nonetheless—somehow the vibe, the pace, is insanely different. Things seem to move slower out west, even though much of Silicon Valley is bound to Wall Street.

Of course, things still get done: Why else would companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo call Southern California home? To attract new talent, tech companies position themselves as the laid-back and cooler alternative to their suit-and-tie, I’ll-get-there-faster-than-you counterparts back east. It works.

But America is a melting pot of different cultures, so it sort of makes sense that different areas of the country might construe time differently.

When you take a step back and look at how the entire world views time, what you see becomes incredibly interesting. Different cultures, shaped by unique circumstances, interpret time considerably differently than most Western folk. Let’s take a look at just how dissimilar those interpretations can be.

The Pirahã

pirahaAn indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe that lives in Brazil near the Maici River, the Pirahã have long been the focus of linguists who’ve tried to crack their rather unique communicative code. Believe it or not, the group’s language doesn’t use the subordinate clause at all, is without numbers and only has three pronouns: ti, gi and hi, which translate roughly to I/we; you; and she/he/this/they.

So if the Pirahã don’t have any numbers in their language, how do they keep track of time?

The answer’s quite simple: They pretty much don’t. Their language is without any past tense verb conjugations, which means they focus strongly on the present moment. If something has already happened or if something hasn’t happened yet, it doesn’t exist—history is confined to living memory.

A small tribe of about 700 living in the jungle, the monolingual Pirahã eat food when they have it—they don’t feel a need to stockpile. If everything’s fine right now, why worry about an experience that very likely won’t materialize?

The Navajo

navajo-woman-childrenThough the states that surround them abide by a linear scale of time—i.e., Johnson, turn this assignment in by 3 p.m. Thursday or else!—the Navajo people believe time is more circular in nature. So exact moments in time (i.e., deadlines) don’t matter; the river of time flows onward, without obstruction.

The Navajo believe that if you bomb the job interview of a lifetime, for example, there’s no reason to worry: The right opportunity will turn up the moment it’s necessary.

Many in the western world spend lots of time planning for the future: weekend engagements, vacations, trips to the grocery store. We plan so much, we’re even conditioned to buy insurance to protect us from things that most likely won’t happen (e.g., most homes don’t catch on fire). Can we truly enjoy the present with this mentality?

The Navajo stress the importance of patience. They wait to react until they’re best positioned to assess the totality of the situation at hand. So exhale: You don’t always have to rush (unless you’re on deadline).

The Aborigines

aboriginesEver heard of Dreamtime?

The isolated Aborigines—the indigenous people of Australia—view time in a particularly fascinating way. Generally speaking, their approach encompasses four different facets: the beginning of existence; the influence of those who’ve come before us; our existence on earth; and sources of power.

They believe that all beings have their undeniable place in eternity, and as such, things pretty much go as they do.

For the Aborigines, time doesn’t exist linearly like it does for most of the Western world. Rather, it exists vertically in relation to the present. Events don’t happen now because of what’s happened in the past. They believe present existence encompasses every moment in time.

To them, the past contains the present, and the present moment is in some way a part of the past. The Aborigines believe that people, places and time all blend together into one, forming a continually flowing river of existence.

So what’s the sense in worrying about tomorrow anyway? In a sense, it’s already happened.

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