EVERY CULTURE is, to a great extent, a reflection of the kind of temporal orientation it adopts. No two cultures think exactly the same because no two cultures share identical conceptions of time.

Our Western concept of time, which is abstract, external, linear and quantitative, makes little sense to members of other cultures where durations are measured not by the ticking of the clock, but by reference to specific tasks. As one scholar aptly put it, in many non-Western cultures they "don't tell you what time it is; they tell you what kind of time it is."

For example, in Madagascar, when someone asks how long something takes, they might be told that it takes the same time as "rice cooking" (about half an hour) or the time it takes to "fry a locust" (a moment). The Cross River natives of West Africa, when asked how long it took for a man to die, would say, "The man dies in less time than the time in which maize is not yet completely roasted (less than 15 minutes)."

Several years ago researchers compared cities in six countries in terms of pace of life. The researchers examined three time indicators: the accuracy of the country's clocks; the speed of pedestrian traffic; and the time it took for a postal clerk to sell a stamp. It should come as no surprise that Japan's clocks were by far the most accurate, averaging less than half a minute early or late. Japan also led the way in pedestrian speed. The average Japanese citizen walked one hundred feet on a downtown street in less than 20.7 seconds. The English came in second, averaging 21.6 seconds, with the Americans a close third at 22.5 seconds. When it came to speed of postal service, Japan led the pack, with clerks averaging 25 seconds to complete a transaction. The Italians came in last, taking 47 seconds on the average to complete the task.

Of all the time dimensions, cultures differ most in terms of perspective. American culture has always been fixated on the present and near future, our planning rarely extending beyond the four-year presidential term. The Iroquois culture is quite different. The Iroquois have institutionalized a future time span of seven generations into their planning decisions. An Iroquois chief explains the process:

"We are looking ahead to make sure (that) every decision we make relates to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come, and that is the basis by which we make decisions in council. We consider: Will this be to the benefit of the seventh generation?"