The Secret Powers of Time and Cultural Differences


In the video below you will see interesting perspectives of time perception through the eyes of different cultures, countries, generations, religions.

According to Professor Philip Zimbardo, people look differently at time based on cultural and individual values:

  • Focused on the past  (negative or positive): people remember all the good old times, successes, happy birthdays while other people focus
    only on regrets, failure and all the
    things that went wrong.
  • Focused on the present ( hedonists and fatalists) the hedonists live for pleasure and avoid pain. The fatalists are present oriented because they say, “It doesn’t pay to plan”  My life is fated by my religion – fated by my poverty – fated by the conditions that I’m living under.”
  • Focused on the future depending on your religion life begins after
    the death of the mortal body. To be future oriented you have to trust that when you make a decision about the future it’s going to be carried out. For example : If you have great inflation you
    don’t put money in the bank because you can’t trust the future.
  • Sense of duration : how much time has expired while you’re sitting in a dentist’s office before they start drilling? How much time has expired when you’ve been waiting in line? how much time has expired when you’re having fun? Time duration is totally a function of whether you’re bored, in pain, excited or not.
  • Pace of life: for some people time is money and think it must be spent wisely and are multi-tasking oriented,  while for others, time is not limited and they focus more on people and building relationships than being on time for an appointment.

With these perspectives in mind, I found interesting to compare time perception between North Americans and Europeans as there are huge differences.

Most Europeans enjoyed more than 4 weeks of vacation per year:  almost 8 weeks in France or  6 weeks in Germany in addition to bank holidays. In America, the majority of small business owners work seven days a week and more than 12 hours per day and many American employees have only 2 week or even less vacation.  In the United States,most  people can be reached by their company even when they are on holiday. Thanks to the smart phones and other tablets, Europeans employees too can be reached during non business hours but it is tolerated that they don’t answer during their private time.

In many European countries paid maternity leave is 4 weeks before delivery and about 6 weeks after. In the US I have seen many women working until one day before delivery and going back to work few days after the baby was born.

It is not uncommon to see French spending 2 hours for a business lunch and even more for a dinner and Germans have a break and get breakfast  at work around 10 am.

I lived and worked in Manhattan and the contrast is big, people walk faster than in Paris. Most people  go to a salad bar or get  a sandwich and eat in front of their computer. Almost everywhere in America,  you have business lunch meetings where employees have pizzas and coffee available while listening and talking.

In the United States, most shops and restaurants are open on Saturdays and Sundays and you can shop 24/7  if you want. This is same in Japan but in many European countries, almost everything is closed Sundays and in Belgium most restaurants are closed for lunch on Saturdays.

You can watch the whole lecture by Professor Philip Zimbardo here:



About Anne Egros

Zest and Zen is a blog about Expat Life Challenges, Global Leadership, Intercultural Communication, Health and Wellness, Nutrition, Change Psychology, Life Transitions
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12 Responses to The Secret Powers of Time and Cultural Differences

  1. Pingback: Perception of Time Value In America and Russia | Anne Egros, Intercultural Executive Coach

  2. Pingback: THE COMMANDMENTS FOR DOING BUSINESS IN RUSSIA | Anne Egros, Intercultural Executive Coach

  3. Wendy Appel says:

    Hi Anne,
    Fascinating video. Lots of points for discussion in it. Love the idea of using time as a frame to understand cultural difference as well as inter-generational difference.
    By way of context, I am from the US, both middle America and most of my adult life in San Francisco. However, I have been living in Europe (both North and South) for the past four years. This idea of time is one of the reasons I stay here right now, rather than moving back. It was an effort to slow things down and have more spontaneous interactions, which I was unable to create in my life living in the Bay Area.
    One of the first things I noticed when I move to Europe was people’s relationship to family time and time away from work. In the US, I was rare in that I would take 3-4 week vacations at one time. People said to me, “Aren’t you worried that they will start thinking they don’t need you if you have been away that long?” Interesting. Never occurred to me. Many people wear their short vacations in the US, as a badge of honor–and that they stay connected via email, SMS, whatever while gone. My experience in Europe has been very different. You are expected to take your vacation–all of the many weeks–and there is something amiss if you don’t.
    I have done work in Europe for international companies based out of the US, and unfortunately they require that their European counterparts conform to the cultural time norms of US business. What are the short/long term consequences of that?
    So much more I could say about all of this, but I’ll stop here. Thanks for sharing this thought provoking video!

    • Hi Wendy,
      Very interesting comment. It is funny because it seems that for expatriates who enjoy their life abroad, “home” has all the sins and many negative things. Somehow we become outsiders in our own country while we assimilate all of the good things our host country has to offer. For me it is a survival thing: you need to de-program and let go some of your own cultural traits, habits, beliefs to make room for the new ones. For example in Japan never wear shoes inside a house so I think now it is disgusting to have people entering my home with shoes. Of course when I am living in the US or in France, I wear shoes at home when I have guests and I will not ask the lady in high heel to trade her shoes for sleepers at our Xmas party!

      • Wendy Appel says:

        Hi Anne,
        What you seem to be pointing to in the last part of your post is that context has a lot to do with our perception.

        Re: the first part of your post, there are many wonderful things I miss about the US and in particular, the San Francisco area. There are many things I love about here and other things that I find frustrating. It is always a balance. There is no “perfect” place.

        I see ex-pats who are as you describe and others who can’t wait to return. This notion of “home” is very particular to each person and their approach to living in a foreign country. It also has something to do with why they left their homeland in the first place.

        Home has a lot to do with being at home in yourself no matter where you are.

  4. Grannelle says:

    You’ve convinced me – I’m moving, and my wife is just going to have to come w/ me. Great article; never realized how much more laid back it must be in the EU than it is in the states. Probably why people live longer there.

    • Thanks for your comment. Maybe we can trade places? I personally feel more alive in the US. I like the fast pace, everything is possible, positive thinking, not as much bureaucracy, giving back to the community and business women support groups are just few of my favorite things about living and working America.

  5. Thanks for the share, Anne. I was listening to this interesting presentation from the perspective of the learning domain. The current educators, both for children, and for adults in the workplace, are talking about, but not yet prepared to keep this new generation engaged and interested. We need fresh and innovative “change agents” who can pinpoint where we need to focus our learning strategies to make sure we are maximizing the potential of our new generation.

    • Thanks Barbara for bringing this topic from the video. I totally agree that we need people who “break the old rules’ and adapt in real time to new issues and technologies. I am not sure that video games are really to blame for the lack of interest of children in school programs. Do you really need to learn your multiplication tables by heart if you can learn strategies to solve mathematical problems with a calculator ? What is important is not acquiring knowledge as it is already a free commodity you can get from the internet but kids need to learn critical thinking and how to use information to create new ideas and solve problems in a global and highly connected world. I think developing global citizens should be the highest priority of any educational system.

  6. Hi Anne, interesting yes and France does value the lunch breaks. I personally love it. Food and meal times shouldn’t be a sidebar in our lives. Also it goes back to all this multitasking nonsense of trying to eat, drinking coffee, listen to a presentaiton and take notes. One of these activities has to suffer.
    Vive les dejeuner de 2hrs. Speaknig of which you got me thinking about lunch 🙂

    • Hi John. thanks for your comment. I am French and so enjoy equally the food and the restaurant atmosphere as well as good table manners!
      I don’t know if being from the south of France has something to do with it but I like taking my time for meals too. I was shocked that only 20% of Americans share meals with other family members! I enjoy cooking and when everybody is at home we always have seated family meals with NO TV !

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