Do Cultures Segment Time Differently?

Some people may have genuinely different understandings of "on time."

Posted Jan 27, 2012

In his fascinating book A Geography of Time, social psychologist Robert Levine observed that most Americans assess punctuality in 5-minute intervals, whereas most Arabs assess punctuality in quarters of an hour (i.e., 15-minute intervals).  An American, for example, might say someone will be 5 to 10 minutes late, but to say "3 to 8 minutes late" would sound strange.  An Arab, on the other hand, probably wouldn't use 5-minute segments; the Arab would say someone will be a quarter-hour late.  At least that's what Levine claimed.

Eminent anthropologist Edward T. Hall made a similar observation in his book The Silent Language.  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."  The Mediterranean Arab, according to Hall, "makes fewer distinctions than we do.  His scale has only three discernible points ... no time at all; now (or present), which is of varying duration; and forever (too long)."

Although Levine and Hall both observed that Americans segment time more precisely than Arabs, neither Levine nor Hall presented empirical evidence to support his claim.  Spurred by these assertions, Raivo Valk, Abdessamad Dialmy, and I investigated the psychology of time segmentation in a group of 300 university students in Estonia, Morocco, and the United States.

We asked students to complete a time-estimation task.  On a signal from the experimenter, participants began to inspect an intricate diagram.  After 47 seconds, the experimenter told participants to set the diagram aside and estimate the amount of time (in seconds) they had inspected the diagram.

Almost everyone overestimated the amount of time that had passed, sometimes by a factor of 2 or 3.  More to the point, 93% of the American students reported their time-estimate as a multiple of 5 seconds (65 seconds, for example).  Estonians (81%) and Moroccans (74%) were less likely to use a multiple of 5 and more likely to use a multiple of 15.

In a second task, we asked students to read seven scenarios about individuals arriving for an appointment of some sort.  For each scenario, participants were instructed to indicate how early (or late) someone could arrive before the person was inappropriately early (or late).  In this task, two-thirds of Moroccans expressed their answer in terms of quarter-hours (i.e., a multiple of 15 minutes), whereas fewer than half of Americans did the same.  (Estonians responded much like Americans; half expressed their answer as a multiple of 15.)

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.

When struggling to understand why some people are less punctual than others, it may be wise to consider how people partition the minutes in an hour--and to acknowledge that people may have genuinely different understandings of "on time."  More on this subject in a future post.


Hall, E. T. (1959/1981). The silent language. New York, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday.

Levine, R. (1997). A geography of time: The temporal misadventures of a social psychologist. New York, NY: Basic Books.

White, L. T., Valk, R., & Dialmy, A. (2011). What is the meaning of "on time"? The sociocultural nature of standards of punctuality. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 42(3), 482-493.

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