In The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983), anthropologist Edward T. Hall entitles his first chapter "Time as Culture." An extreme stance perhaps, especially given the potency of nature's rhythms, but it is instructive of the extent to which experiences and conceptualizations of time and space are culturally determined. Unlike the rest of nature's animals, our environment is primarily man-made and symbolic in quality. As Jacob Bronowski observed in The Ascent of Man, instead of being figures of the landscape, like antelopes upon the African savanna, we humans are the shapers of it. Geographical space and natural time are transformed into social space and social time, around whose definitions human beings orient their behaviors. For instance, instead of being governed by the natural rhythms of the sun and seasons, our behaviors are governed by such cultural temporalities as work schedules, age norms, and by the "open" hours of shopping malls.

Culture is a shared system of ideas about the nature of the world and how (and when) people should behave in it. Cultural theorists argue that culture creates minds, selves and emotions in a society as reliably as DNA creates the various tissues of a living body. Culture also creates the rhythms of a society that echo within the very biology of its members. Observes Irving Hallowell ("Temporal Orientation in Western Civilization and in a Pre-Literate Society, American Anthropologist 36, 1955), "It is impossible to assume that man is born with any innate `temporal sense.' His temporal concepts are always culturally constituted" (pp. 216-7). A 1974 study by William Condon and Louis Sander showed that within a few days, infants flex their limbs and move their heads in rhythms matching the human speech around them. By the time a child is three months old he has already been temporally enculturated, having internalized the external rhythms (called Zeitgeber, meaning "time giver" in German) of his culture. These rhythms underlie a people's language, music, religious ritual (the Buddhist mantra, for instance, is not only one's personal prayer but one's personal rhythm), beliefs about post-mortem fate, and their poetry and dance. These rhythms also serve as a basis of solidarity: humans are universally attracted to rhythm and to those who share their cadences of talk, movement, music, and sport.

Thus socio-cultural systems can be likened to massive musical scores: change the rhythm-- such as putting a funeral dirge to a calypso beat--and you change the meaning of the piece. Cultures differ temporally, for example, in the temporal precision with which they program everyday events (ask any American businessman trying to schedule a meeting in the Middle East) and in the ways various social rhythms are allowed to mesh.

Anthony Aveni, "Time's Empire" The Wilson Quarterly (Summer 1998)

From Kathleen Jenks' "Mything Links: Common Themes, East and West" Time

The Big Myth cross-cultural mythologies of the world's creation

Australian Aborigines' Dreamtime

Robert Levine's "Re-learning to Tell Time" in American Demographics, January 1998

Tempus Fugit: Time Flies different temporal understandings from the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art


Temporal prosperity comes always accompanied by much anxiety.

--John Donne, 1631


In developing the distinction between what he calls Monochronic and Polychronic cultural times, Hall writes:

P-time stresses involvement of people and completion of transactions rather than adherence to preset schedules. ... For polychronic people, time is seldom experienced as "wasted," and is apt to be considered a point rather than a ribbon or a road, but that point is often sacred. ...Polychronic cultures are by their very nature oriented to people. Any human being who is naturally drawn to other human beings and who lives in a world dominated by human relationships will be either pushed or pulled toward the polychronic end of the time spectrum. If you value people, you must hear them out and cannot cut them off simply because of a schedule.

M-time, on the other hand, is oriented to tasks, schedules, and procedures. As anyone who has had experience with our bureaucracies knows, schedules and procedures take on a life all their own without reference to either logic or human needs. ...M-time is also tangible; we speak of it as being saved, spent, wasted, lost, made up, crawling, killed, and running out (pp.43,50).


Does social history unfold, like the sequence of seasons, in a cyclical way endlessly repeating itself, or is history linear and increasingly "progressive" or "degenerative"? With the former, time can be recuperative as cultural members can escape both their futures and pasts as they periodically are given new starts. With linear time, which characterizes contemporary Western cultures, cultural outlooks are either positive (e.g., time brings salvation, resurrection, or utopian social orders) or negative responses (e.g., time ultimately brings entropy, dissipation, and death for self, society, and cosmos).


Cultures differ in their general orientation toward the future, present, or past. Central to this orientation is whether the "Golden Years" are collectively understood to exist either in the future (hence, time is seen as being progressive [Nisbett, 1979] and evolutionary), the present (now is the best of times), or in some golden past (such as Paradise Lost or the "noble savage" beliefs of Romanticism). This broad temporal distinction determines such beliefs as the role of the dead in everyday life and the extent to which the behaviors of the living are oriented toward their ancestors or heirs. Postmodernism may entail a focus only on the here-and-now, with little sense of connection to the past or future as the only certainty becomes change. Richard Darman, former budget director in the Bush administration, claimed in 1989 that America suffers from a cultural "now-now-ism"--a "short-hand label for our collective short-sightedness, our obsession with the here and now, our reluctance to address the future," evidenced by rising drug abuse (a sign that young people care too much about the next two hours and too little about the next two decades), the decline in education (reflecting a society lacking a commitment to future generations), and capitalism's logic that favors current consumption over long-term savings.  To counter such short-term framings, the Long Now Foundation  is working on a 10,000 year clock.


Being special creatures, we tend to attribute cosmic significance to our activities and are prone to view supernatural forces at work in our affairs, particularly those which produce the unintended consequences of our actions. Traditional Chinese folklore, for instance, holds that natural calamity indicates the loss of the "mandate of heaven," portending the decline of dynasties. Knowing the potency of variable reinforcements in shaping our behaviors and beliefs -the "slot-machine effect," if you will- imagine the reinforcements to this ancient belief when, in 1976, a massive earthquake killed hundreds of thousands Chinese in Tangshan and then, shortly thereafter, Chairman Mao tse-tung died. The realm of such external influences is the sacred cosmos. Juxtaposed against the "profane," commonplace world of everyday life, the "sacred" entails the experience of the mysterious, extraordinary, and uncontrollable forces that act against chaos and that underlie the affairs of nature and man (Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 1966). Sacred time involves the collapsing of the past, present, and future into an eternal now in order to, in part, allow heroics of the past be continuously part of the sacred present. Profane time is time as wear-and-tear, time as decay and death.



It has been said that in Mexico time walks while in the United States it either runs or flies.



Cathedral of St. Stephansdom, Vienna It's curious how much technological energy and innovation cultures apply to their time pieces. Nowadays, supposedly at the tail end of a linear, progressive history, the modern individual can have a deserved smugness about the temporal precisions of his life. Science has produced time pieces capable of measuring subatomic events occurring within billionths of a second or of gauging from a piece of charcoal when some prehistoric fire had been lit. But the Olmec Calendar, recently found near Tres Zapotes, Mexico, uses symbols to count 1,125,698 days, thus indicating that it was used to mark off time continuously for over 3,111 years. Does modern life somehow engender a quest for immediacy, precision and speed that leads us to ignore much longer rhythms originally experienced by our ancestors? Only in the past do we find cultures generating projects, such as the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe or the Great Wall of China, spanning Avebury the lives of several generations. At Avebury on the Wiltshire downs of Britain, there is a circular ditch that covers 28-1/2 acres, encompassing even a small village. It was a massive undertaking, built with the most basic of tools as the trench was dug; the earth, basically hard chalk, was cut away with primitive spades and then transported on shoulders in wicker baskets, up the steep sides of the ditch, to be deposited on the surrounding mound until the bank was some thirty or forty feet above them. Some estimate that the enterprise must have taken some fifty generations to complete. Questions and observations such as these have fueled a rich research tradition in the rhythms shaping the life experiences of differing peoples of the world. Sorokin and Merton (1937) argue that the only real determinants of any social time scale are the needs of society. As these social needs evolved with the increasing complexities of the social order and with the higher-ordered needs of its social actors, new temporalities came into existence. This process of social evolution comes very slowly and new time frameworks are required to even appreciate the change.


In the Andes, time is often measured by how long it takes to chew a quid of coca leaf; sometimes the destination is so many cigarettes away.



there is more to life than increasing its speed.
--Mohandas K. Gandhi

New York minute
n : a very short time; "if I had the chance I'd do it in a flash" [syn: blink of an eye, flash, instant, jiffy, split second, trice, twinkling, wink, New York minute]
Source: WordNet ® 1.6, © 1997 Princeton University

It has become a maxim that contemporary societies are experiencing an accelerating rate of social change. But what, in addition to technological innovation and the "knowledge explosion," are these changes and how can they be measured? And are there limits to the amount of change that can be absorbed by social structure and individuals?  These and other intriguing questions are addressed in James Gleick's Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything.

There is a cognitive component to modernity that features, in part, the difficulty of expressing concepts for which past experiences offer no frame of reference.
Jay Walljasper, "Speed of Life" (Conscious Choice, Sept. 2000) on the history of time's accelerating pace in American culture



It seems almost obligatory for Chinese restaurants to feature their zodiac on placemats to engage customers while awaiting their meal. So you're a rabbit--lucky you! And so what if the President is a dog?

RABBIT: 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999
Luckiest of all signs, you are also talented and articulate. Affectionate, yet shy, you seek peace throughout your life. Marry a Sheep or Boar. Your opposite is the Cock.

TIGER: 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998
Tiger people are aggressive, courageous, candid and sensitive. Look to the Horse and Dog for happiness. Beware of the Monkey.

OX: 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997
Bright, patient and inspiring to others. You can be happy by yourself, yet make an outstanding parent. Marry a Snake or Cock. The Sheep will bring trouble.

RAT: 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996
You are ambitious yet honest. Prone to spend freely. Seldom make lasting friendships. Most compatible with Dragons and Monkeys. Least compatible with Horses.

DRAGON: 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000
You are eccentric and your life complex. You have a very passionate nature and abundant health. Marry a Monkey or Rat late in life. Avoid the Dog.

SNAKE: 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989
Wise and intense with a tendency towards physical beauty. Vain and high tempered. The Boar is your enemy. The Cock or Ox are your best signs.

HORSE: 1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990
Popular and attractive to the opposite sex. You are often ostentatious and impatient. You need people. Marry a Tiger or a Dog early, but never a Rat.

SHEEP: 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991
Elegant and creative, you are timid and prefer anonymity. You are most compatible with Boars and Rabbits but never the Ox.

MONKEY: 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992
You are very intelligent and are able to influence people. An enthusiastic achiever, you are easily discouraged and confused. Avoid Tigers. Seek a Dragon or a Rat.

COCK: 1921, 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993
A pioneer in spirit, you are devoted to work and quest after knowledge. You are selfish and eccentric. Rabbits are trouble. Snakes and Oxen are fine.

DOG: 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994
Loyal and honest you work well with others. Generous yet stubborn and often selfish. Look to the Horse or Tiger. Watch out for Dragons.

BOAR: 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995
Noble and chivalrous. Your friends will be lifelong, yet you are prone to marital strife. Avoid other Boars. Marry a Rabbit or a Sheep.

The Japanese follow the Chinese cycle but in addition each year is also named for one of five elements--wood, fire, earth, metal and water, yielding sixty possible combinations. Few birth years are worse than hinoe uma, when fire and horse fall upon each other. It is widely believed that women born in this year are destined to kill their husbands.

Since 1949, the Japanese have celebrated a national holiday called Coming of Age Day, honoring those who turned twenty during the previous year. In 1987, some 1.4 million young men and women, all born between Jan. 16, 1966 and Jan. 15, 1967, were the stars of the day. Their numbers, however, were 22 percent less than the prior and following year. Why? Could it be that that was a hinoe uma year?


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