The world on time

June 14th, 2009

Today’s column addresses the disconnect between an American woman and her Brazilian friends, who often “cancel plans at the last minute, for reasons that surely could have been foreseen.” They, and her Brazilian husband, all claim that this is typical Brazilian behavior.

Different cultures do have different relationships to time. Shortly after I wrote this column, I read the intensely interesting Beyond 9 to 5: Your Life in Time by Sarah Norgate. Norgate cites another researcher’s experience in Brazil:

In another anecdote [author of Geography of Time Robert] Levine talks about his visiting professorship to Brazil, where he was puzzled that only a few students turned up for the start of his first lecture. Over the course of the “scheduled” two hours, the students walked in, smiled, said hello, sat down and carried on settling in apparently as normal. No one tried to creep in or saw the need to offer an apology; they just came to the lecture when they were good and ready. Punctuality was of no concern; instead the overriding ethos was time’s flexibility–also known as “rubber” time.


5 Responses to “The world on time”

  1. Dmajor on June 14, 2009 7:05 pm

    Hard to saunter onto the train 20 minutes after it’s left the station, usually. Someone living on “rubber time” must have some kind of distinction between situtations when punctuality matters and when it doesn’t.

  2. Robin on June 15, 2009 6:37 am

    I agree. I’ve never been to one of those “rubber time” countries myself (they’re pretty doggone punctual in Vienna, I tell you what). But it obviously isn’t practical for all situations. So people who live in them probably switch between “rubber time” and, say, “glue time” (you know, as in “I’m rubber and you’re glue”). Not unlike the way we switch between formal and informal registers of speech depending on the context.

  3. magicbean on June 15, 2009 1:33 pm

    I’ve been to a few rubber time countries. Trains (planes, whatever) are pretty much always late anyway. So you arrive 4 hours early (to claim a space on the platform near the train entrance), sit with your books and friends and food and picnic until 5 hours after the train was supposed to have been there and it finally arrives. And then someone’s grandmother has a heart attack, and the train waits for another two hours for medics to arrive and then finally leaves and breaks down 30 minutes outside your final destination, where you sit for another hour or two. Buses often wait until the bus is full to leave, and who knows when that will be. The entire culture is arranged around things not being on time. If you’re expecting everything to run like clockwork, it will drive you mad. You have to let go and enjoy the time for what happens when you’re there. Always bring a book. Scratch that, always bring TWO books.

    It evokes a certain sense of flexibility and responsiveness that translates to relationships and expectations. Time is situational, life is situational, and not up to anyone in particular. It can be annoying as all hell, but it also can be really fun and adventurous if you let it be.

    If you’re really stuck and need to get to the post office (which does, like all government offices, close bureaucratically at precisely 16:00:00:01), grab a taxi. Taxis will run over anyone to get you there on time.

    Japan is the opposite of a rubber time country. If a train’s going to be 30 seconds late, there’s someone announcing it on the platform.

  4. Traveling Professor on June 15, 2009 6:56 pm

    The distinction between “event time” and “clock time” has been helpful for me in understanding my own enjoyment with, and problems, with, time. Clock time is what trains run on in Vienna and what classes start by in U.S. universities. Event time is however long an event takes. So if the class has just gotten into a meaty discussion where all the students are interested and clamoring to discuss, then if its being run by event time, the class doesn’t end even though technically the class time is over. Now, this was just an example; although I’m a professor I never, except for about once every five years, hold class over and only because something happened like a student didn’t finish their presentation in time, because too many students in class are on clock time. But I am a fan of event time. Let me explain…

    For working with my volunteers, employees and collaborators, as soon as I know them well, I try to convey that, to the extent that we’re comfortable with it, we can work at least somewhat on event time. This means that no one has to apologize for being 10 minutes late, and if you’re going to be later, its fine to just call or leave a message that something came up, and if we are making a lot of headway on a project, then if everyone agrees we can reschedule what we were going to do the rest of the afternoon to keep going with this project. Or if our meeting was originally 3-4, but we’re not done by 4, I’ll try to resched what I had at 4 to stay to answer all your q’s. If you’re my co-worker and you’re working in your office anyways with plenty to keep you busy and I’m 20 minutes late, then its no big deal since you’ll understand that I was on event-time and needed to finish my prior event, its not like I stood you up at a street-corner, and often you’re just as glad to have 20 minutes to finish your prior meeting which probably ran over since you’re like me, or have time to grab a coffee across the street — ACCKKKKK!!!!!! Fights ensue, misery, why are you always late!

    If I lived in Brazil, I’d fit right in. But I don’t, and so I do try to work by clock time. Except some people get it. I thus learn to figure out who is like me and appreciates the flexibility of event time. Perhaps this sounds like a lot of work. Why keep track of which friends/co-workers are okay with event time, instead, just have one standard, clock time for everyone? Because clock time isn’t me. The freedom of getting to live at least part of the time by event time is too helpful for me, and I thus try to learn how to minimize annoying others by learning what works for them.

    The biggest problem is friends and significant others who think that my being late means something more than that I booked too tightly and my prior event ran over. They think it means I’m ambivalent about our meeting, don’t value them as a co-worker or friend, that I wanted to send some kind of message by being late. This flabbergasts me. The message is that I was overly optimistic about how long my prior event would take. That’s the deep secret. And then they have to face the mystery, why I stay and prolong the current meeting. Its because event time says you stay with the current event until the job reaches its own termination point, not until the originally scheduled end time is reached. For people on clock time, this may seem doubly strange.

  5. Alexa on June 16, 2009 9:11 pm

    I’ve lived in Brazil for a long time, and it seems to me that instead of a general cultural characteristic of that country, this is first of all a matter of how each person (and also groups of people) cares about being punctual.

    Each person and groups of people care about things differently, and something that may be considered essential in social relations for some, may be unimportant to others, and that may be the case even with people from countries known to be more strict with punctuality.

    Besides, there’s always a danger in generalizing, and even in situations when groups of people act with the same disregard for punctuality, such as in KK and Levine’s experiences, one can’t blame hundreds of thousands of people for the behavior of a few dozen.

    By the way, doesn’t it sound a bit cynical from those “Brazilian friends” to say “Yes, that is typical Brazilian behavior”? Isn’t it pettiness to tag peoples as lazy, rude, etc, even when we do that to the people of our own country?

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