The Voices of Time
Time talks. It speaks more plainly than words. Time
communicates in many ways.
Consider the different parts of the day, for example.
The time of the day when something is done can give a special meaning to
the event. Factory managers in the United States fully realize the
importance of an announcement made during the middle of the morning or
afternoon that takes eveiyone away from his work. Whenever they want to
make an important announcement, they ask; "When shall we let them
In the United States, it is not custorriary to
telephone someone very early in the morning. If you telephone him early in
the day, while he is shaving or having breakfast, the time of the call
shows that the matter as very important and requires immediate attention
The same meaning is attached to telephone call after 11. 00 P. M. if
someone receives a call during sleeping hours, he assumes it is a matter
of life or death. The time chosen for the call communicates its
In social life, time plays a very irrrportant part. In
the United States, guests tend to feel they are not highly regarded if the
invitation to a dinner party is extended only three or four days before
the party date. But this is not true in all countries. In other areas of
the world, it may be considered foolish to make an appointment too far in
advance because plans which are made for a date more than a week away tend
to be forgotten.
The meanings of time dif#er .in different parts of the
worid. Thus, misunderstandings arise;; .between people from cuitures that
treat time differently. Promptness is valued highly in American iife, for
example. If people are nvt prompt, they may be regarded as impolite or not
fully responsible. In the U. S. , no one would think of kee.ping a
business associate waiting for an hour, it wouid be too impolite. When
equals meet, a person who is five minutes late will say a #ew words of
explanation, though perhaps he may not complete the sentence.
Americans look ahead and are concerned almost entirely
with the future. The American idea of the future is limited, however. It
is the foreseeable future and not the future of the Soath Asian, which may
involve centuries. Someone has said of the South Asian idea of time :
"Time is like a museum with endless halls and rooms. You, the viewer,
are walking through the museum in the dark, holding a light to each scene
as you pass it. God is in charge of the museum, and only he knows all that
is in it. One lifetime represents one room. "
Since time has such different meanings in different
cultures, communication is ofte.n difficuit. We will understand each other
a little better if we can ksep this fact in mind.
I am a member of a small, nearly extinct minority group
who insist, even though it seems to be out of date, on the sanctity of
being on time.
Which is to say that we On-timers are compulsively,
unfashionably prompt, that there are only handfuls of us left, and,
unfortunately, we never seem to have appointments with each other.
The fact is that being on time has become a social
The fact is that generally speaking, the time that the
Late-people set as the Moment of Rendezvous is a code. It is a code
meaning at least one half-hour later. The fact is that we Ontimers can't
get that into our heads.
We arrive invariably at the appointed hour at people's
houses, which means that we have occasionally eaten'all the sandwiches
before the other guests arrive. Which means that we are rude.
Let me explain. We are, for example, invited for dinner
at eight o'clock at the home of friends who live exactly twenty minutes
away. We leave our house at ten to eight so that for once we will be a
comfortable ten minutes late. Then even the traffic defeats us. We meet
only green lights and arrive at four minutes to eight. We drive about for
a while and then enter at one minute past , to the astonishment of the
host and hostess.
She is at an important stage of preparation with the
saucepans. He is thinking about taking a shower.
We end up helping with the first course and putting the
baby to hed and mixing the drinks and are still left with enough time to
analyse what kind of people our hosts are from the magazines on the coffee
As for meeting in restaurants , you can immediately
recognise us On-timers. We are the only non-alcoholics standing in
restaurant doorways in December. If not, we can always be found killing
time in the cloakroom or trying to look as if we are not alone at the bar.
Now, we all know that these very same Late-people do
not routinely miss planes or the beginnings of films. But, as I told a
late-person recently, "If I were a train, I'd be gone. . . "
With regard to meetings there are two kinds of peoplc.
Those who hate to wait and those who hate to make others wait. The sadists
and the masochists? I hope not.
There was a New York magazine piece once about the
power struggle involved in business lunches. It intimated that you could
always tell the powerless and the powerful. The Indians were waiting,
while the Chiefs arrived half an hour or an hour later. If you are an
On-timer, you cannot make an entrance.
The Late-people, of course, are always terribly sorry,
"but something important came up" (in contrast to us, for
instance). Besides, as they say, their minds are always so full of big
questions (like The Bomb) that they never know what time it is. In
comparison with the On-timers , 'they suggest , who have their little
brains filled with stupid details like the big hand and the little hand on
The problem is getting worse. If you adjust to the
Late-people and accept the fact that they're half an hour behind the time
you arranged to meet , they arrive an hour late.
Fewer and fewer of us On-timers remain. We are now
surprised when anyone else is on time. We have begun to make certain
adjustments like setting our clocks and watches back or bringing the novel
we're working on to dinner parties.
How late we are to recognise that being on time is out
of date, that in fact, our time has passed.
How Americans See Time
Americans recognise that there is a past on which the
present rests.But they have not developed their sense of the depth of time
to the extent that this has been done in the Middle East and South Asia.
The Arab,looks back two to six thousand years for his own origins. History
is used as the basis for almost any modern action. The chances are that an
Arab won'r start a talk or a speech or analyse a problem without first
developing the historical aspects of his subject. The American assumes
that time has depth, but he takes this for granted.
The American never questions the fact that time should
be planned and future events fitted into a schedule. He thinks that people
should look forward to the future and not dwell too much on the past. His
future is not very far ahead of him. Results must be obtained in the
foreseeable futureone or two years or, at the most, five or ten. Promises
to meet deadlines and appointments are taken very seriously.
There are real
penalties for being late and for not keeping commitments in time. The
American thinks it is natural to quantify time. To fail to do so is
unthinkable. The American specifies how much time is required to do
everything. "I'll be there in ten minutes. " "It will take
six months to finish that job. " "I was in the Army for four and
a half years. "
The Americans, tike so many other people, also use time
as a link that chains events together, If one event occurs on the heels of
another, we inevitably try to find a causal relationship between them.
If.A is seen in the vicinity of B's murder shortly after the crime has
been committed we automatically form a connection between A and B.
Conversely, events which are separated by too much. time are difficult for
us to connect in our minds. This makes it almost impossible for us as a.
nation to engage in long-range planning.