Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Time and Lateness

Readers familiar with Latin America or the Middle East will recognize phrases like “mañana,” “Arab time,” or “island time.” All of these connote a local understanding of time that differs from the to-the-minute accuracy  (well, almost) that the West has grown accustomed to since clocks became commonplace. It turns out that these differences influence the amount of precision expected when asking someone the time, or in measuring lateness. From Psychology Today:

For most Americans, “there are eight time sets in regards to punctuality and length of appointments: on time, five, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty-five minutes, and one hour early or late.” …

Moroccans in the study were more likely than Americans to mentally partition an hour into 15-minute segments.  This may explain, at least in part, why Moroccans and other Arabs are often less punctual than Americans.  An American who arrives 10 minutes after the appointed time is late by “two units of psychological time.”  A Moroccan who is also running late by two units will arrive 30 minutes (“two quarters of an hour”) after the appointed time.

The expression “psychological time” feels a little fuzzy but the overall idea seems plausible: that lateness depends on how many chunks of an hour your culture breaks time into. It can be very hard for travelers from the West to adjust to a different understanding of time in a foreign culture, which often leads to frustration. I know less about how time differences challenge others when they come here. My Arabic teachers were often late, but that may be due to another stereotype–the absent-minded professor. Do these differences operate at a macro-scale, affecting the amount of time considered reasonable for accomplishing a political goal?

One thought on “Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Time and Lateness

  1. True. When my Indian colleagues say they are coming, it could mean another 2 hours wait, even though the travelling distance takes just 15 minutes.

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