Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Geography of Time

The Geography of TimeIt's funny how when I met my husband I rarely read nonfiction. I think high school and college kind of beat the orneriness into me so that once I could really choose my own books I'd never think of picking up something so dry as a book that had no plot. Ugh. Which reminds me . . . some day I need to do a list of all the things Andrew has introduced me to, with Strange Brew and Shredded Wheat being near the top.

But now that I'm so mature some of the best things I've read in the last five years have been nonfiction and I love the feeling that comes from piecing my way carefully through something that completely changes the way I look at the world.

Last month I posted this video on the The Secret Powers of Time and in it they referenced The Geography of Time by Robert Levine. The video was so fascinating that I wrote the book on my reading list then promptly forgot about it until Carina at Babysteps randomly recommended it to me. What are the odds?

So that sent me to the library and I was reading it within the week. Levine is a social psychologist who studies the pace of life around the world. "And how does one measure the pace of life?" you may skeptically ask. Well, he and his minions went to 31 countries around the world and measured three things--how fast people walked, how quickly the local post office would sell a postage stamp and whether or not the local clocks were accurate--then ranked countries accordingly.

Some things were not surprising--that Japan ranks high would be the easiest thing in the world to guess--but the U.S. ranked 16th, left in the dust by Italy, Switzerland (who scored highest), England and Ireland. Go figure. I suppose California kind of balances out the rest of us uptight states.

Levine and his researchers wondered if the same differences would extend between cities and they measured as many cities in the U.S. in the same manner to find that (as expected) Boston and New York were tops on the list while California cities were left back at the beach. Not surprisingly those same fast cities were also the highest in coronary disease with one exception--Salt Lake City. Scoring as the fourth fastest-paced city on record those Mormons are apparently constantly scampering around, running from church meeting to church meeting but as they don't smoke or drink, they alone of all the fast cities are spared the heart attacks.

Levine's team wasn't satisfied with their results and went back a third time to measure if those same cities whose people moved so fast were also willing to help strangers in need. In short--does pace of life also affect to your willingness to help others? Sure enough, it does. The tests were, again, of a three-part nature but I've got to jump out of line here and tell you what he said about New York. They did simple things such as dropping an item to see if anyone would retrieve it for a stranger but they also put test envelopes on random cars. The envelopes were addressed and stamped and the testers wrote a note on the back of the envelope saying, "I found this letter next to your car, did you drop it?" They then slid the envelope under the wiper blade and waited to see what their subjects would do with a letter that obviously wasn't theirs.

Many letters across the country were tossed in the mail to be mailed back to the laboratory but Levine poked fun at the levels of courtesy the test received. Some letters were sent back opened or tampered with and one letter from New York City--get this--was returned opened and included a rant cursing and swearing the person for being stupid enough to have dropped their letter in the first place.

I love it. New Yorkers are busy but apparently they're even meaner than they are busy and it's worth taking five minutes if you can be sure of ruining someone's day. Levine noted that perhaps the New York points shouldn't have counted on this particular subject as proof of their level of courtesy--after all, they did return the letter and the experimental conditions were met--but he wasn't sure something so spiteful should be added to the total point spread in the city's favor. Heh.

And under the subject of "good news": you can be proud if you live in Tennessee. While up against cities across the entire country (well, in the Lower 48 at least) that beautiful state was able to boast the top three or four most helpful cities, which (if you've ever been to Tennessee, is totally for real). The study, overall, found that a face pace of life was a pretty good indicator that people living there would not be likely to help a stranger in need (Mormons included). But it also showed that being slow-paced, such as in California, did not necessarily indicate a propensity to be courteous.

In fact, California, in it's own laid-back way, scored horribly. Levine posits that it's because California, while comfortable and relaxed, embraces a culture that is all about the individual and personal gratification--hedonism at its finest and most expensive. What makes Tennessee--and many other high-scoring southern cities--different is that while they're slow and relaxed they also have a culture that values courtesy and manners. You help someone because it's the right thing to do and you do it with a smile and a "yes'm."

Anyway . . . I'm rambling but the whole point of the book (which was something I'd never stopped to consider in all my life) is that our perception of time is largely shaped by our climate, our gross national product, our religion and all these things (plus a few others) coordinate to determine how we feel about time and therefore how we live our lives. I go through my day, looking at my watch and coordinating events from hour to hour, which is a distinct representation of how I was culturally taught to view time and not because I merely conform to some innate propriety of how mankind should ideally operate as set forth by the gods.

I guess it's like thinking that I like vanilla ice cream so everyone in the whole world must love vanilla ice cream too (and they should--it's the best). Levine goes a good way to showing how not only does not everyone like vanilla ice cream but most don't even know what it is and would laugh at me for thinking the sweetened, frozen milk of a cow the best treat on the planet. Which I guess is really quite fine because, in the end, it just means more for me.

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Meg said...

You review peaked my curiosity so I went to place it on hold at my library. In searching for it, I found "The Geography of Thought: how Asians and Westerners think differently and why" by Richard E. Nisbett.

I realize it's not the same author but I thought I would pass it on to you all the same. It may be an interesting read as well.

Carina said...

I loved this book and have really enjoyed the increased awareness of how I and those around me use and experience time. I was particularly interested, too, in how helpful people were from different parts of the country.

Alice Wills Gold said...

I've lived 1/2 of my life in CA, 1/4 in UT, and 1/4 in TN and I would say that on the overall scale, Tennessean customer service is the WORST. But maybe that is because the older I get, the more rushed I am.

Maybe Levine's studies weren't completely scientifically sound.:) Because I am a hedonist and I know everything. :)

When you find a NICE Southerner, there isn't anything sweeter, but because our pace of life is EXTRA SLOW, it means that nobody has to rush to keep anybody else happy.

Derek, Rachel and Cadence said...

I can't find the title in my library!! :(

@Meg: I've read some of The Geography of Thought. It is REALLY good!

Jenna said...

Oh, man, one more reason to move out of California. How embarrassing! How did I end up here?!

CountessLaurie said...

I loved the video. I will add this to my to-read list. Sounds very interesting!!

Janel said...

Sweet! Thanks. That looks like an interesting read.

VanderbiltWife said...

I love living in Tennessee. When you come across someone who ISN'T nice, it's truly surprising! I guess I will try to remember that the next time I have to wait a long time at the Post Office. It's just because they're sharing niceties about their grammas.