Why Time is a Social Construct

Psychologists and anthropologists debate how different cultures answer the question, “What time is it?”

Illustration by Jeffrey Fisher

“What time is it?” is not a question that usually provokes a lot of soul-searching. It’s generally taken for granted that even if we don’t know the correct time, a correct time does exist and that everyone on the planet—whatever time zone they happen to be in—follows the same clock.

University of Missouri management scholar Allen Bluedorn believes time itself is a social construction. “What any group of people think about time ends up being a result of them interacting with each other and socialization processes,” he says.

We measure time not simply in terms of minutes and seconds, but in terms of concepts such as “early,” “late”—or, for that matter, “fashionably late.” What is the length of a “work day”? In the United States, Europe and Japan you’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 clock—they’ve felt compelled to do so because of the demands of commerce.

The U.S. national time standard, for instance, didn’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. “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,” 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 it’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 “mono- chronic” or “polychronic.” 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 “tempo” 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 Cincinnati’s proud city time?

Levine feels that life will inevitably speed up in some countries, but that mental differences will linger. “You can find quotes throughout history of people saying that life is getting faster and looking back nostalgically on the slower, older days,” he says. “But whether in people’s reality things actually feel faster than they did, that’s a tough one to measure.”

Bluedorn believes that “people are just going to become more aware of temporal differences in different cultures.” In fact, he worries about what would be lost in a culturally synchronized world. Monochronic and polychronic perspectives both have their advantages, he argues. “Fast isn’t always best; nor is slow.”

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