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"Saving Time": An Introductory Overview on the Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Time

Updated on June 29, 2011

While Spain unified with Portugal under the crown of Philip II and the Anglo-Spanish War raged on either side of the Atlantic, a singular gentleman, seemingly far removed from the numerous watersheds that came to define the end of the 16th century, sat in a shaded pew of a cathedral in Pisa and idly observed a swinging chandelier. This lackadaisical observation although soon transformed into a fervent interest, when, with fingers on his pulse, the man recognized a distinction between the period which it took for the chandelier to swing one full cycle and how this fact stood independent of the amplitude through which it swung. With his seemingly inconsequential revelation, Galileo Galilei began laying the groundwork for the accurate keeping of a long-controversial element: time. But this feat did not offer a solution for most other issues that time presented, including what it actually was; was it physical, a trick of the mind, or perhaps even non-existent? The subjectivity on the issue of time makes it an impossible theory to deem universally acceptable, and every culture, both ancient and contemporary, has attempted to domesticate this abstract concept through creating their own individual understanding of the term, and through various means of both mental and biological adaptations.

Still, the scientific definition does allow for a possible designation of a specific origin of time; that found in the tool making capabilities of 2 million year old Australopithecus. The manufacturing and re-working of these implements suggests the conscious acknowledgement that they would serve as items to meet future needs. This was more or less, an example of foresight. The advent of language then allowed for further capabilities in not only expressing, but thinking about things that occurred in -for the lack of better terms- the past, present, and future (Roeckelein, 4).

The ambiguousness of time has although not halted the formulation of generally accepted scientific definitions to attempt to make this concept tangible. In simplest terms, published definitions of time all suggest of a continuum that lacks spatial dimensions and measures successive events throughout past, present, and future.[1] But for the Piraha tribe of Southwestern Brazil, there are no words that describe time beyond a single day; there are no concepts of past and future (Zimbardo, 33). And for 14th and 15th century Chinese Civilization, time was regarded as having different intervals, which stood as separate units of discontinuous time (Roeckelein, 5). With only two cultural groups considered, the scientific definition has already encountered cultural-bound opposition, making it evident that there is no universally competent means to encapsulate the characterization of time.

With the dawn of the first great civilizations came further attempts at modifying time, as well as some of the first documented endeavors at adaptation. The Ancient Egyptians, for instance, had an intense correlation between nature al and social events, most of which relied solely on the annual flooding of the Nile River, which, with astronomic observances, resulted in a twelve month civil year containing 360 days (Whitrow, 26). By the 2nd Millennium B.C, Hindu cosmology had introduced the concept of cyclic time, in which the universe undergoes repeated cycles (Lewis, 403). And with the birth of Classical Antiquity evolved some of the first extensive thought processes on the mystery of time, debated by great minds such as St. Augustine and Parmenides.

The Middle Ages then provided five distinct modes of understanding time: computational, or scientific, philosophical, mechanical, astrolabic, and kalendric, all of which manifested the increasing awareness of the problematic aspects of time keeping (Poster, 6). The Renaissance and Scientific Revolution that followed produced further insights on the measuring of time, such as those given by the aforementioned Galileo, and new theories concerning the concept of time, as Newton did in his declaration for absolute time.

Over the next 500 years, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists, including Immanuel Kant, Adolf Grünbaum, Michael Dummett, and Einstein, continuously developed theories on the many aspects of time, giving the modern Western world its mainstream notion of the concept. But what of the remainder of the world, where clocks do not dictate a scheduled existence? What of the cultures in which the phrases “spending time” and “wasting time” hold absolutely no relevance in every day happenings? What of the societies who live simultaneous within two different states of time?

For some, time, as proposed by the Western world, is close to non-existent. The Hopi, for instance, have a language that according to Benjamin Lee Whorf, “contains no words, grammatical forms, constructions, or expressions that refer to time or any of its aspects,” (Falk, 87). While they may not have any vocabulary to suggest the changing of tenses, the Hopi although still exhibit practices, such as annual ceremonies and harvests, which can only be conducted with some general concept of time. The Piraha, a Brazilian tribe, also have no terms used to designate something either in the past or future. Instead, the tribe’s lives are conducted through “event time”; instances in the environment, including the rising of the sun or tides, which allow for a basic structural system for them to follow.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Australian aborigines have not only a concept of time, but furthermore, two parallel constructions of it; one in which the natives’ lives commence as biologically intended, while simultaneously, existing eternally in the “dreaming”. In the “dream time”, an individual exists even before he or she are conceived, and continue on after death in a world that is ever present and serves as the foundation on which aboriginal society builds (Dean, 3).

It is although not only construction or existence of time that varies between cultures; there are also general differences in how it is valued. In India, believers in the Hindu faith experience life through cyclic time, meaning nothing is permanent, history is irrelevant, and time is illusionary. Perhaps the seeming endlessness of “time” in this case leads to the relative ease placed upon daily occurrences. Robert Levine, a social psychologist, recounted his stay in India, in which he spends hours waiting on trains, telephone clerks, and people, due simply to the absence of any idea that might suggest seeing time as an inconvenience or something that needs to be rushed (Falk, 98).

A stark contrast to this slow-paced environment is that of Wall Street in New York, where every second not only holds value, but also translates into money. Within the broker filled rooms of the Financial District, various sized clocks, wristwatches, digital computers, and the occasional hoarse yell announces the passage of time. Any second not spent selling is “wasted time.” An hour in which multi-tasking accomplishes three times as much allows for “time to be saved.” Here, as much as with many other urban centers of the Western World, the values of currency are directly transferred to the values placed on time.

While before, the universal attempt at explaining time concerned itself with scientific theories, time as it is viewed on Wall Street has rapidly infiltrated other cultures with its sense of urgency and import. The electronic global capital model has begun to manipulate perceptions of time, so that for many persons far removed from the Eastern Time zones accommodate the opening of the Stock Market in New York, no matter the local time of the individual’s region. With the advances made in live media coverage and telecommunications, the ability to function not only within a local time, but also within a distant time zone, has become a possibility.[2]

In the past, accommodations to time changes were made through calendar revisions, shifts of harvests, and the inventions of day-extending tools such as light bulbs. But the present trends of globalized time have led to damaging biological adaptations. The “timelessness” of the world has caused for a drastic increase in professions that require night shifts; an occupation that can lead to adverse physical symptoms, including the lack of sleep and increased hormone levels. Another instance may involve those who are drawn to the New York Stock Market for business while residing in Tokyo. The conflicting time zones may cause individuals to experience insomnia or irregular sleep cycles, while brokers who are physically headed directly to New York from Tokyo in order to personally experience the bustle of Wall Street will suffer from jet lag and other temporal orientation issues.

So what of the future? How will the globalization and strict regulation of time affect the biological cycles of humans? Perhaps human beings will regulate their bodies to such an extent that it will simply adhere to a pre-ordained schedule, meaning it will know precisely how and when to live, and eventually, how to die. Or possibly, due to the cultural perceptions that shape time, the fast-paced world will experience a drastic acceleration of their lives; a statement that definitely gives credence to the commonly used phrase “time flies.” The only thing that can be concretely stated is that time is becoming more and more economized; it is a commodity that can either be “spent”, “saved”, or “wasted”, and will eventually, just as money has a tendency to become, a useless item once its value has been forgotten.

Copyright Lilith Eden 2011. All Rights Reserved.


Zimbardo, Philip, and John Boyd. The Time Paradox. Free Pr, 2008. Print.

Lewis, James R. Controversial New Religions. Oxford University Press, 2005. 483. Print.

Poster, Carol, and Richard Utz. Construction of Time in the Late Middle Ages. Northwestern University Press, 1997. Print.

Gell, Alfred. The Anthropology of Time. Berg Publishers, 1992. Print.

Falk, Dan. In Search of Time. Thomas Dunne Books, 2008. Print

Dean, Colin. The Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime: its History, Cosmogenesis, Cosmology, and Ontology. Victoria, Australia: Gamahucher Press, 1996. Print.

Casey, Conerly, and Robert Edgerton. A Companion to Psychological Anthropology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005. Print.

Roeckelein, Jon. The Concept of Time in Psychology: A Resource Book and Annotated Bibliography. Greenwood Pub Group, 1966. Print

[1] Definition according to Encyclopedia Britannica from its website

[2] This paragraph includes variations of theories made by Kevin Birth in his artile “Time and Consciousness” as published in A Companion to Psychological Anthropology by Conerly Casey and Robert Edgerton.

Time and Consciousness


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    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN


      It looks I have a little bit of reading ahead of me this evening with all these subtle suggestions being tossed in my general direction! And the content appears so promising, with your ego being compromised by a woman and all.

      Of course, this is all in good fun, and I promise to do my best in keeping my competitive tendencies to a bare minimum.(Maybe)

      -Lilith (although Kiddo suits me just as well)

    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN


      I see now just how active you have been; I envy the fact that you are capable of writing on such a myriad of subjects! I keep hesitating on expanding into new writing arenas, and find your assemblage of articles encouraging.

      In my humble opinion, the only reason you are casting doubt upon your "hubpaging" capabilities is because of a lack of the structure you have become accustomed to through your experiences with publishing books and articles.

      If that is, perhaps, the case, then throw a wayward glance at all literary constraints and enjoy the liberation that the internet provides.

      Good luck during your manic weeks ahead.


    • Craig Suits profile image

      Craig Suits 

      7 years ago from Florida

      Get outta town. That's not a stigma, it's an asset. You should be very proud of yourself. I am and I hardly know you. Besides, a little guy/girl compitition is not only natural but fun too. Check out the tennis paragraph in my hub "A Day At The Park. An Ongoing Love Story"...Match point and I got creamed again BY A GIRL. Geeze! What's this world coming to. She cheated though. See what I mean by "asset"...

      I'm a chess player all my life and I love to play people better than me (If I can find one). And yes, there are plenty of girls out there that could whoop me 100 times out of 100 games. Well at least I let them think so anyway. :>)

      Making a fool of one's self is where I got you nailed to the wall. First: I've had a lot more time to perfect the art form, and Second: Well again, take a quick look at my Hub called "Dumb Things We've All Done Over The Years". You'll see what I mean...

      Stay cool Kiddo...

    • profile image

      Jt walters 

      7 years ago

      Hi really nice to meet bnoth of you.

      My poor spelling is genetic. I could use help on the hubpages. I have no idea what I am doing.

      This is a very different forum than publish books, research articles or technical manuals so I am really new.

      Ii wouldn't htink being a female would compound anything since all of the world is generated from the female species.

      As for the article I think the Lineaus (sP?) clock with the flowers in the Netherlands. Your article reminds me of the painting by Dali "The Persistence of Time.".

      It will be good to prgress with someone on the hubs. I am in a down period right now. I have published 50 aticles in 5 weeks. I am taking some tme now to refelct on what I want my 60th hub to be. I also have a very demanding schedule in the next couple of weeks but from what I understand this is the way free lance writers work. Again I am new so I couldn't really say.

      Good to meet you both.


    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN


      The hub is a new experience for myself as well, so we can progress together! I am thrilled that you took interest in this subject and I am sure there will be no end to the interesting, if slightly odd, posts (Craig, I am naturally including you in this assumption).

      I am looking forward to what you produce in the future JT!

      Until the next post,


      And Craig, do not despair, I will end up making a fool of myself in due time, and my embarrassment will be compounded because of the fact that I AM A GIRL! :)

      Oh, how societal stigmas burn.

    • Craig Suits profile image

      Craig Suits 

      7 years ago from Florida

      Thanks JT. That's funny I thought I was the only one left that couldn't spell. Hey!, if you need any help or have any questions about Hubpages...Hollar, Lilith would be glad to assist you (she's smarter than me) AND SHE'S A GIRL TOO ......AARRGGHHHHHHH!

    • JT Walters profile image

      JT Walters 

      7 years ago from Florida

      Lilith and Craig,

      I am impressed with both of you. I have read Gallileo's Two Universes with my son. Required readng in 5th grade. We are on Newton's Principia. Galllileo's method for describing tme is differnet then what you have written here. And ten there was Linaeus (sP?) The Lineaus Clock's of the Netherlands. And those are pretty accurate to the longitude and lattitude.

      Excellent hub. I am new and I am following you both to learn. And Craig, I am still learning to type and spell to and I have an advanced degree.

      Great Read!!

    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN

      Wow, Craig, thanks for the incredible resources and the tip on multiple graphics!


    • Craig Suits profile image

      Craig Suits 

      7 years ago from Florida

      I can't imagine how I could contribute to an article of yours outside of some off the wall humor perhaps but as they say, two minds are better than one.

      Also, I have a database of 72,000 photo's,annimations,songs and sound effects,and clip art all catorgorized for instant access. many of which you won't find anywhere on the net. Hollar if you need a picture or something.

      By the way, Hubpages encourages multiple graphics on their hubs.

      If you get a minute, check out my web site at It pretty much tells my nutcase story. I originally set it up to learn the process but added many pages as time (there's that word again) rambled on. Lots of fun stuff there...

    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN


      I see what you is honestly eerie how two of our posts practically mirror each other! I think I see a joint writing venture in our future, huh?

      And do not demean your article like that! It touched on everything that mine did not and left so many excellent questions open for discussion. But thank you nevertheless for the flattery; contrary to popular cliches, it will get you somewhere. Haha.

      Yes, the ultimate jet lag experience is definitely your title to hold, and I must resign myself as well to the fact that your clock picture shames my own.


    • Craig Suits profile image

      Craig Suits 

      7 years ago from Florida

      Wow!!! That was an awesome read. You can't possibly know that much about any subject. Your not old enough! Holy cow, I'm really impressed. I'm 69 for Christ sake and I'm still learning how to spell. Awesome Lilith. Flat out awesome! I too did a hub on time but after reading yours, I'm almost ashamed to give you the address.

      Awe what the hell, you might get a few chuckels out of it.

      We've got to be related somewhere somehow. Our interests are too similar. My clock picture is cooler than yours. Hah! got ya! :>)

      And you mentioned jet lag in your next to last paragraph. Well I happen to have had the ultimate, all time, jet lag experience.

      Starting out from Home in North Jersey, I flew to Austrialia for the Olympic games a few years back. When I got there, I called home to let them know I arrived safe and sound and I ANSWERED THE PHONE! That's what you call Jet Lag. :>)


      Great piece of work Lilith. I'm going to read it again hoping I'll remember 5%.



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