The problem with using time well is that it risks transforming every moment into nothing but a means to future ends
In the mid-1970s, when the American psychologist Robert Levine took a job at a university in Brazil, he knew he should expect a different pace of life. But he had no idea exactly how different. It was a dose of culture shock I wouldnt wish on a hijacker, he later wrote. On the morning of his first 10am lecture, students were still showing up at 11am; the next day, his head of department arrived for an 11am meeting at 11.45, offered him a coffee, then left again, explaining that it was her practice to schedule multiple meetings for the same time of day. The Brazilians were baffled by Levines punctuality, and more baffled by his distress at their lack of it. I heard no more frequent words from my laid-back hosts than their pleading advice: Calma, Bobby, calma. However slow he tried to go, it wasnt slow enough.
Levine, who died in June, took an infectious delight in the sheer cacophonous variety of human behaviour, and time was one of his obsessions. In 1999, measuring the pace of walking in cities around the world, he found that Dubliners were more hurried than Londoners, who in turn went faster than New Yorkers a surprising result, but one which echoes other work suggesting that economic growth might be a factor in walking speeds, since Ireland was booming at the time. Brazilians walked the slowest.
To members of the Uptighterati, like me, its almost impossible not to interpret the Brazilian attitude to time as a form of laxness, however enviable. But that judgment masks an unexamined assumption that punctuality is obviously the only meaningful temporal standard, which different cultures observe or ignore to differing degrees.
Yet in fact theres something odd about the punctuality principle, which involves first mentally conjuring an abstract timeline, then trying to make reality conform to it. The alternative often mistaken for slacking is what scholars call task orientation (Levine calls it event time), in which the rhythms of life emerge from lifes activities themselves. Its less that Brazilians are failing to abide by a timetable, than that theyre successfully abiding by something else.
Its easy to romanticise the task-oriented life. But the point here isnt that schedules and punctuality are wrong; theyre essential for countless aspects of life that most of us would describe as progress. For us schedule obsessives, though, its liberating simply to realise there might be another way of thinking about time, so as to help us see when were overinvesting in the urge to use time well.
Thats the wisdom in the old tale about the New York businessman, holidaying in Brazil, who starts lecturing a younger local man on the secret of success. Instead of whiling his life away fishing and drinking and playing music with his friends, the New Yorker says, he should expand his fishing operation, hire employees, make millions, then eventually retire so he can spend his days fishing, drinking and playing music with friends. The problem with using time well is that it risks transforming every moment into nothing but a means to future ends which turns out to be a terrible approach.
Robert Levines 1997 book A Geography Of Time explores the wildly different temporal logics of cultures around the globe.
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