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What Is Time Essay, Research Paper

Book Report

What is time? Well, since it is almost impossible for anyone in any culture to define, the more appropriate question may be how many kinds of time are there? This is the title of first chapter in Edward T. Hall s The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. According to Hall, experiences and conceptualizations of time are defined and formulated by one s culture, whether it is conscious or unconscious. This book deals with the most personal of all experiences: how people are tied together and yet isolated from each other by invisible threads of rhythm and hidden walls of time (3). As humans, we orient our behaviors around definitions of time much like the way our thoughts and ideas are shaped by the language we speak. Time organizes, categorizes, and measures all of our experiences. Since experiences and behaviors compose 90% of the communication between people (language the other 10%), Hall poses the question of how it is possible to maintain a stable world in the absence of the feedback from the other 90% of communication (4). Hall describes to us his experiences with time in various cultures and shows the differences between the definitions in each of them.

Hall has done fieldwork with Navajo, Hopi, Spanish-American, European, Middle and Far Eastern societies. He has spent 30 years living an active, outdoor, ranch life in parts of Arizona and northern New Mexico, where he currently resides. Through these experiences, he has been able to gain first-hand experience of the role time plays in different cultures. It is important to note that Hall, taking the position that time and culture are virtually inseparable, finds himself on the opposite side of a high fence from many Western social scientists who hold that Western philosophical scientific models are applicable to all cultures (5). He does not see time as constant, but rather it has to do with the way culture develops and how people of a specific culture experience the world. His main goal in this book is to use time as a means of gaining insight into culture, but not the reverse. He has set out to examine the underlying differences in cultures that are found at what he calls the primary level (PL). This PL is what sets cultures apart, though we may think of them as very similar. The conscious, technical level that includes words and symbols, and even a private, screened-off level, known to only a select few, can be put into words, unlike the PL culture, which is entirely nonverbal.

In Hall s first chapter, he describes time to us in the model of a mandala, since it shows the relationship of many ideas to each other in a comprehensive, non-linear, fashion (see fig.1). Here he places biological, personal, physical, metaphysical, sacred, profane, sync, and micro times. Biological time, in the beginning, was all periodic and rhythmic, as are the flow of the tides and the changing of the seasons, and then they became internalized by different organisms that lived on the earth. Biological clocks stay in sync with these environmental rhythms. Much like biorhythm, personal time is time is unique to the individual s experience of time. It is more subjective than biological time. An example of physical time is the sun traveling along the horizon from the farthest northern point to the farthest southern point, measuring the longest and shortest days in the northern hemisphere. Many important ceremonies and times for planting and harvesting were calculated by physical time. Metaphysical time involves aspects of an extraordinary dimension beyond our normal experience of reality. Experiences of this king of time are those of “d ja vu” for which there is no explanation. Sacred time is an imaginary type of time; it is reversible and unchanging. For example, in Native American ceremonies, the participants are in the ceremony’s time and any other time is suspended, or no longer exists. Profane time is prominent in out daily lives. In the western world, minutes, hours, days, etc. mark this explicit time. We are not conscious of the rules of micro time and its uniqueness to each culture. It is one of the basic building blocks of culture, very similar to the patterns of M and P times, which have numerous variations. An example of sync time is that of a newborn infant synchronizing its movements to its parent s voice. Even each culture has its own beat–its own sync. We each experience all these times in our daily lives.

Spending much of his time with Native Americans, Hall was able to explore the differences between theirs and the white man’s world. In 1931, the government began a program of building dams designed to help the Hopi and Navajo tribes by providing them with work. As the project progressed, there arose more and more problems about completing the work properly and on time. What the white men did not realize was the tribes were on a completely different schedule. In addition, they did not even bother to consult the tribes as to which drainage could be counted on for runoff and which couldn’t. Even feuds were inflamed between the tribes when dams were built on one tribe’s sacred land when both were supposed to share it. The white men could not understand why projects were not completed on time and why work did not seem to be completed correctly. In fact, while the white men only lived in “their own” time, they were dealing with many times; these times were those of Hopi, Navajo, the government bureaucratic, and other variants of the white man’s time. Work often interfered with religious and farming ceremonies of the tribes, which influenced their attitude toward work. While we, AE (American-European) people, drive our tasks to closure (leaving a job half finished could be seen as wasteful and threatening), Hopi people do not seem to be concerned with scheduling this…unless it involves their ceremonies, which are scheduled. Another difference between the Hopi and the white man is the Western idea that time heals. This does not apply to the Hopi. Their enslavement and rejection of religion still affected them intensely, while the whites were ignorant of it and treated it as “ancient history.” If only the white man knew how to relate to these people s sense of time, many conflicts could have been avoided.

AE cultures are known to separate time into the past, present, and future. This is not so for the Hopi. While AE cultures use this objectivity of time as a means of controlling and managing time, no verb tenses of past, present, or future exist in the Hopi s language. You could say that the Hopi live in the “eternal” present. Their verb tenses, indicate the validity of the statement. “When a Hopi says, ‘It rained last night,’ the hearer knows how that Hopi speaker knew it rained (35). Another instance is that of how the seasons are treated. They are often used as adverbs rather than nouns. [EXAMPLE] They cannot describe the summer as hot because it has the quality of hot; they are the same thing.

Two specific types of time are monochronic and polychronic time. Monochronic time, or M- time, is the system of doing one thing at a time. Latin American and Middle Eastern cultures follow the system of polychronic, or P-time, which is the system of doing many things at a time. M-time cultures, which the United States falls into, make what you might call a fetish out of managing time; they set appointments and follow schedules (even though often they are not kept). This often leaves tasks to be rushed in order to be finished on time, and in other instances, things may be finished too early, leaving time to be wasted. Scheduling is handled in a completely different manner between these two systems; in polychronic cultures, nothing is solid or firm and plans may be changed right up to the last minute. Monochronic cultures tend to compartmentalize, making it possible to concentrate on one thing at a time. This, in turn, reduces the context because it selects a chosen few events to take place within a limited period of time. Polychronic cultures are very context oriented which makes it possible for many tasks to be done at once. M-time can be saved, spent, or wasted; therefore it is tangible, unlike P-time. This allows us to use M-time as a classification system that orders our life. Although, to us, monochronic time may seem natural and inherent, it is imposed on us from birth and learned throughout our lives. Polychronic people feel a need to be in constant contact with each other in order to keep up with what is going on in the lives of the people around them. Their involvement in people is the very core of their existence (46).

Another important aspect about M-time and P-time is that the two cannot be mixed together; they are like oil and water. Let us imagine what would happen when an M-time person, Mr. M., makes a visit to a P-time person, Mrs. P. They had planned to meet for lunch, so, as always, Mr. M. was very punctual and arrived just at 12 noon. He is then left waiting for about five minutes or so while Mrs. P. finishes up her conference call, which has run over-time. They finally get out of the office and hail a cab. A colleague standing next to them is in a hell of a hurry, so they all decide to share a cab and take the colleague where she needs to go first. Finally, they get to the restaurant and order lunch. What do you know? She sees her long lost cousin in the same restaurant and invites him to their table. They catch up on old times and everyone finishes their meal. On the way back to the office, Mrs. P. asks Mr. M. if he wouldn t mind stopping by the store to pick up a few things that she needs. No way does he mind, but he can t see himself ever living this disorganized lifestyle even though this seems to be no problem for Mrs. P.

The preceding story shows the difference between M and P times, but it is also very representative of the differences between men and women. Hall states that men tend to be very M-time oriented, while women are usually more P-time oriented.

Edward T. Hall states that no communication is completely independent of context, and all meaning has an important contextual component. The simplest statement can take on an entirely new meaning depending on the context in which it is understood. He sees information, context, and meaning in a functional relationship described in the figure of two triangles (see fig. 2). The first triangle shows when there is a large amount of stored information at the top, the higher the context. The second triangle shows little information at the top and more at the bottom. When the two are pieced together, the relationship you can see is that when context is lost, there is a need for more information in order to keep the same level of meaning. But, there can be no meaning without both of these factors together. Humans automatically make adjustments from the information they are given and are able to give the correct amount of information with context to make sense. Still, this varies largely from culture to culture.

In comparing Eastern cultures to Western cultures, Hall found that eastern cultures involve higher contexts than western cultures. This makes their communication faster than ours. Another difference in the two ways of life are the way they view philosophy; for Western religions, it trains the conscious mind to search for the “truth” or “meaning of life,” while in Japanese religion, philosophy is life. Westerners “think” and organize and plan these thoughts consciously, while easterners feel that thoughts interfere with our consciousness.

Everyone has experienced time at one point or another as something dragging or passing. This phenomenon can be attributed to things such as concentration, perception, age, mood and even space. It seems that the more concentration one uses to complete an action the “faster” time might seem to pass. We might experience this when we are down to the deadline of writing a paper for a class and are working so intensely, that before we know it, the hour has “flown” by and it is time for that class to start! An example of time perception can be that of composers like Beethoven and Mozart. They both could compose in their heads, but unlike Mozart, Beethoven could only compose the strings of an orchestra in his head and finish out the rest of the orchestra on paper. Mozart’s extraordinarily organized central nervous system allowed him to experience the entire orchestra all at once, which made the process extremely fast. Age also affects the way time is experienced. By many accounts, we have heard people say that the years seem to go by faster as they get older. As children, the wait over twelve months for Christmas felt like an eternity, but now we feel like we barely have enough time to buy gifts for everyone for that brief, fleeting holiday. Mood also plays a large role in our experiences. A teenager using the old excuse for exceeding their curfew, “We were having so much fun, I just lost track of time,” may in fact be true. On the other hand, patients of severe depression have described it as feeling stuck in a never-ending state.

One of Hall s main points is that time is directly related to space. By this he means that the scale of our environment affects our perception of time. He gives this example in an experiment held by a researcher named De Long. He gave his subjects masks which cut off all peripheral view and set them in front of a furnished dollhouse. They were then told to identify with one of the human figures and, without actually moving or touching the doll, see themselves engaged in some type of activity in the house. Then, they were asked to alert the experimenter as to when they felt thirty minutes had passed. The result was that what was experienced as one hour s work in the model was actually one hour s time by the stopwatch the experimenter used to measure time. This was true when the environment was reduced to 1/6 its normal size. When using a 1/12 scale, only five minutes in clock time was perceived as an hour, and so on.

The dance of life that Hall is speaking of in the title of the book is where all of these factors about time and space finally come together. Through filming crowds of different people in different cultures and relations, he was able to identify a dance that was continually being choreographed. Each of their body movements delivered a language, a signal, to any other person they came in close proximity of, or into contact with, who returned their own signal with another step of the dance. Each culture had its own beat, rhythm, or choreography. Of course, we do not notice these things in our day-to-day lives; they happen much too quickly in fractions of seconds. One specific encounter that caught his attention was that of the interaction between an Anglo woman from the American Midwest and a Pueblo woman. The Pueblo woman sat behind a table full of pottery while the woman approached her with a condescending smile. The Anglo woman bent over the table from her hips, closing the gap between them, and began to raise her arm and pointing finger to shoulder height. She held her finger only inches away from the Pueblo woman s face, deeply penetrating the woman s personal space. This was apparent because of the way she turned her head away in disgust and only then did the finger come down. The tourist then left with a look of superiority on her face. Hall questioned whether other people were able to observe these actions as he did, or if he was only able to see it because of his extensive interaction with the field. To answer this, he hired a variety of students and instructed them to see these films, without any specific instructions except only to watch them closely. Many of them became frustrated by the fact that they did not know what they were looking for and they became very bored by watching the same thing over and over again. He only told them not to worry and it would eventually come to their attention. Sheila, his first student, finally noticed what had been there all along just as she was about to give up the interaction between the Pueblo woman and the Anglo woman; she said that the white woman seemed to use her finger as a sword to pierce through the other woman s face. From then on, she saw other interactions that she had not noticed before. The same thing, in the same order, happened with each succeeding student. The only difference noted was that the Hispanic students were able to notice these things much sooner than the Anglo students were because they are more attuned to subtle nonverbal communication and mood shifts.

Many of Hall s findings are what you may call common sense, but if they are so common, why aren t we particularly aware of them? As in our readings, Hall brought forth the concept of personal space and how it varies from culture to culture and even from person to person. It also greatly depends on whom, specifically, the person is interacting with. Many of his observations, like those between the Hopi and the white man, which we ourselves have observed, now make sense. It is not only their culture or language that is different from us, but it is there sense of time and space that makes it so. These differentiating conceptions are important for us to note if we want to gain a better understanding of the world in which we live and of ourselves. With this knowledge, we may come to understand that there are other ways (perhaps, better ways) of doing things and communicating our thoughts in the world. Realizing our impact on the world is also very important. Everything we do belongs to a system of being and this system effects all that we do. Keeping it in balance is central to everyone s well being.

This book, The Dance of Life, is a great contribution to sociology. Hall looks all his experiments and evaluations from a different perspective than we may be used to. Like he states in the book, he does not follow the traditional Western logic that most scientists do. Not everything can be fully explained in that linear fashion, which is what he tries to make evident to his readers. This can give sociologists another viewpoint of the phenomena that occur in the cultures they study. This book made it clear to me that the society we live in, the United States, is a country deprived of a unity that is present in numerous Eastern countries. Although we have many rights that are greatly beneficial to us, and technology that makes life easier, this advanced society is probably too advanced for its own good. We are trying to become more than what we are—human! Our time is always cutting us off, rushing us ahead, or being wasted. Many countries and different cultures throughout the world do not have the technology and sense of time that we do, and they are perfectly happy, living in their own space, being who they are, and nothing more. We should really take into consideration how other people live if we want to even begin to appreciate what we have and also learn to understand others. By appreciating everyone, maybe we will be less concerned with trying to outrun, outnumber, and outdo any culture that is different from ours.

Hall, Edward T. 1983. The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

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