Is there time to slow down?

As the world speeds up, how cultures define the elastic nature of time may affect our environmental health
By Rhea Wessel | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
January 09, 2003

MANNHEIM, GERMANY – At the start of a new year, with resolutions fresh on the drawing board, how we gauge time – as individuals and as a society – seems more pressing.

Yet often a culture’s sense of time is so ingrained that few people consider it in a broader context until they come smack into contact with people who tick at a different speed and operate under different assumptions.

“Our beliefs about time are some of the most basic we hold in life,” says Allen Bluedorn, the author of “The Human Organization of Time” and a professor of management at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

An exhibit in Mannheim, Germany, called “All the Time in the World: Of Clocks and Other Witnesses of Time,” serves as a catalyst for considering the speed at which we live our lives and how this has developed over the ages.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall defined two broad cultural approaches to time. Polychronic people, he said, are involved with many things at once, while monochronic cultures emphasize doing one thing at a time. Monochronism was a learned product of the Industrial Revolution but seems almost a natural form of time because of its prevalence in the Western world. Northern Europe and North America tend to be monochronic, while Mediterranean cultures and Latin America are polychronic.

South and Southeast Asia are considered polychronic, but Japan is monochronic, and China is somewhere in between.

Polychronic people change plans frequently, consider schedules as goals instead of imperatives, and focus on relationships with people. Monochronic cultures emphasize the opposite. People stick to the plan, emphasize promptness, and are accustomed to short-term relationships.

Professor Bluedorn’s work draws on Hall’s thinking and has documented cultural clashes caused by different time conceptions. In 1908, for instance, the Russian team showed up at the Olympics in London 12 days late because it was using the Julian calendar, while the Olympics were scheduled on the Gregorian. And, in at least one case, a European army missed its rendezvous on the battlefield because of different understandings of time, Bluedorn says.

Another, more contemporary, example is the story of American and Mexican bankers who discovered they both had different definitions of the workday, Bluedorn says. The Mexicans worked into the evenings when the American team wanted to go home. After several meetings were set for 7:30 p.m. and the Mexican team arrived late, the two compromised. The Americans agreed to extend their workday and the Mexicans agreed to show up on time.

Our imbedded polychronic and monochronic notions mean that many cultures that appear the same actually have deeply ingrained differences. Even among their Western capitalist counterparts, Americans have a reputation for being shallow because they form “friendships” quickly and appear to fail at enjoying the slower pleasures in life – such as long meals and walks.

Haste makes waste

Wolfgang Sachs, an expert on technology and the environment at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Energy, and Environment in Wuppertal, Germany, cites some of those differences. He believes that the American psyche is at grave odds with the realities of the 21st century, particularly environmental realities. The endless pursuit of time-saving innovation is based on the frontier mentality, he says, which promotes the belief that there are no boundaries within time, space, or the natural world. Dr. Sachs says this attitude is outdated, and its prevalence causes Americans to ignore their own impact on the environment.

Sachs has shown through his work that as speed increases, the amount of resources used rises exponentially. A car that consumes five liters of fuel at 80 kilometers an hour will need 20 liters to go 160 km an hour.

Sachs promotes a slower lifestyle as personal choice and national public policy. We must decide how much speed is enough and learn to live with dignity within those boundaries, he argues. To that end, he has spoken out against high-speed trains in France and Germany, saying that the extra speed is not worth the cost. And he has questioned the introduction of budget airlines in Europe, which encourage people to travel farther for shorter time periods.

“The ecological crisis can be read as a clash of different time scales; the time scale of modernity collides with the time scales which govern life and the earth,” Sachs says. Every year, the industrial system burns as much fossil fuel as the earth has stored up in a period of nearly one million years.

In recognition of the high costs of hurriedness, a group in the United States is organizing Take Back Your Time Day, an event on Oct. 24 designed to start a national discussion about the American time famine. John De Graaf, a primary organizer and author of “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic,” says the date is set nine weeks before the end of the year to help Americans visualize how much vacation their European counterparts enjoy. On that day, the average European could take the rest of the year off.

Mr. De Graaf says his group isn’t against work. Instead it is striving for a better balance between time spent working and that left over for community endeavors, families, creativity, and living light on the land.

Doing nothing as an ecological virtue

Once people have made the conscious choice to collect “time” affluence instead of material affluence, Sachs has a ready idea on how to spend that time: Do nothing.

When you do nothing, you experience the time it takes to study, care, hope, grow, have friends, or paint, Sachs argues in an essay called “Slow Is Beautiful.”

If you stay home and read a book, you avoid driving somewhere and burning limited fossil fuels. You decline to buy packaged consumer goods at a store that is as well lit as a football field, and you omit a trip to a fast-food restaurant, with all its waste in production, delivery, preparation, and serving. When you’re not in a rush, you’re more likely to recycle, reuse, buy used, and do it yourself.

With the American focus on personal efficiency and productiveness, doing nothing can be a countercultural activity. And it may take a cultural shift for doing nothing to be seen as valuable.

• ‘All the Time in the World’ runs through March 30 at the State Museum for Technology and Labor in Mannheim, Germany. For more information: