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Time Perception in the Western Culture, Li Mengyu, Ph.D. and Michael H. Prosser, Ph.D. (in press). Communicating Interculturally. Beijing: Higher Education Press.[Post 171]


Time Perception in the Western Culture

From Li Mengyu and Michael H. Prosser (forthcoming), Communicating Interculturally, Chapter 5, Beijing, Higher Education Press

In a sense, time is a kind of philosophical issue, which has something to with the essence of human beings’ existence. The famous Greek philosopher Heraclites once compared time to a boy who was playing games. However, he regarded the boy not as an ordinary boy, but the authoritative king in the game. Thus, according to Heraclites’ interpretation, human beings were subordinated to time and time was the real king of the world that had a dominant role in controlling human beings’ lives. The concept of the overwhelming power of time is pervasive in the western culture, which has deep roots in western civilization. Ever since the ancient Greek time, time had often been perceived from the physical aspect. Plato classified the world into two categories: the phenomenon and noumenon, and he perceived the phenomenon world to be unreal, which was only the shadow of the absolute logos world, since it symbolized the mutable realm of reality, while he believed the noumenon world to be real, since it stood for the immutable realm of eternal form (in Greek,” idea”). Although Plato debased the value of the phenomenon world, yet he considered the phenomenon world to be controlled by the mutable movement of time. Aristotle in his famous book Physics further defined time as a measurable object in motion, but unlike Plato, he began to accept the authenticity of the phenomenon world and further probed into the physical, objective features of time.

The scientists and philosophers after the Renaissance followed Aristotle’s suit, and they thought of time as a kind of object in linear motion as well. The famous scientists such as Galileo and Newton regarded time as a certain quantity, which was used to calculate the speed of the object in motion, and most philosophers at that period such as René Descartes and John Locke also interpreted time from the physical aspect. Among them, Newton’s perception of time is the most influential and far-reaching. In his famous book Natural Science, he emphasized the concept of absolute time. As a result, the physical interpretation of absolute time as the object in motion had been the main time orientation in the western civilization.

The physical interpretation of time established by Aristotle and Newton underscored regularity, absoluteness, and progress of time, and these features of time were reinforced in the process of western industrialization. As Mumford (1962) stated: “The first characteristic of modern machine civilization is its temporal regularity…. From the moment of waking, the rhythm of day is punctuated by the clock. With regard to time, he claimed that Irrespective of strain or fatigue, despite reluctance or apathy, the household rises close to its set hour” (Mumford, 1962: 269). What’s more, we see in the western culture that time is often believed to be something definite, absolute and valuable, which is even used to measure profit and achievement, and there are many famous sayings which express the importance of time: “The early bird catches the worm (the United States), “Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today”(England), “lose an hour in the morning, chasing it all day long” (Jewish culture). Time has become an absolute, determinant force in the western culture. As Edward T. Hall (1959) noted: “People of the western world, particularly Americans, tend to think of time as something fixed in nature, something around us and from which we cannot escape; an ever-present part of the environment, just like the air we breathe” (Hall, 1959: 19).

The physical interpretation of absolute time in lineal motion, together with industrialization and civilizational progress helps cultivate the future-time orientation in most countries of the western world. Taking the American people as an example, who particularly value the future and believe they can control the future, Hall used “M-time” (monochromic time) to describe the characteristics of western cultural time orientations mentioned above. Of course, the M-time orientation has its own advantages, and according to Hall (1990), M-time people concentrate on the job, take time commitment (deadline, schedules) seriously, adhere to plans, are concerned about not disturbing others, and follow rules of privacy (1990: 15). In general, M-time culture places more emphasis on efficiency and promptness.

However, it has its disadvantages and limitations, which we have become gradually aware of, and is even sharply criticized by some scholars. As Kim has observed (2001): “Life is in constant motion, people consider time to be wasted or lost unless they are doing something” (115). M-time people under the great pressure of time are often controlled by the “invisible hand of time” and their individuality and freedom have been severely damaged. As Wright had pointed out (1968): “This is the history of increasing, unchecked, and now intolerable chronarchy. That word is not to be found in The Oxford English Dictionary. Its coiner should be entitled to define it. Let chronarchy, then, be not merely ‘rule by time’, but ‘regimentation of man by timekeeping” (1968: 7). Lin Yu Tang (2005) used another term “working animal” to describe the wretched situation in which people in a more civilized world have been confronted. He thought of civilization as a matter of them seeking food: “But the essential fact remains that human life has got too complicated and the matter of merely feeding ourselves, directly or indirectly, is occupying well over ninety percent of our human activities” (2005: 144).

In contrast, the Chinese traditional cultural time orientation reflects quite a different attitude towards life and it can help resolve some problems which the western culture is confronted with. Unlike the western time orientation that accentuates the objectiveness, absoluteness and fixation of time, the Chinese traditional cultural time orientation conceives time to be subjective, relative and flexible.

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