Columns, Opinion

SARNA: Exploring pace of life across cultures

“You’re always so laid back about things,” my mom pouts as my brother kicks his feet back and continues glaring at the TV screen. “You’re 25 years old, when will you become more responsible?”

This scenario is commonplace in most Indian households. Whether a person is 20 or 50, the pace of life of Indians is rather relaxed and easygoing, at least in comparison to the people of the West. Even in stressful situations, most Indians take pride in finding comfort in leaving things until the last minute. That’s just how the culture works. It thrives on the “take it easy, things will work out in the end” approach. Picture this comparison: Manhattan’s busy streets on a Monday morning at 7 a.m. versus the busy roads of New Delhi at 10 a.m. With the difference of people on foot and people in cars, the situation is more or less the same, but with a stark three-hour difference. Indians are rushing to work, too — they’re just not as rushed.

The pace of life is noticeably different across cultures. First, let’s clarify the meaning of pace of life in this context. “The pace of life is the flow or movement of time that people experience. It is characterized by rhythms (what is the pattern of work time to down time? is there a regularity to social activities?), by sequences (is it work before play or the other way around?), and by synchronies (to what extent are people and their activities attuned to one another?),” aptly states Robert Levine’s “A Geography of Time.”

Given these bases, I can definitely see a bunch of Indian heads nodding in approval when relating to the breezier aspects of each of the above mentioned. While exceptions exist in every culture and field of life, I am purely playing on the generally accepted stereotypes for the sake of argument.

Levine considers economic well being to be the dominant factor in determining the pace of a city. In other words, the more prosperous a place, the faster its pace will be. Not surprisingly then, North America, Northern Europe and Asian nations are listed as the most fast-paced. However, what irks me is that the Middle East (definitely not what comes to mind when one thinks of less prosperity) and Latin America are amongst those with the slowest pace. A second pointer is industrialization: the more technologically advanced a city is, the less time people have on their hands. Sounds ironic, doesn’t it?

According to Levine, “individualistic cultures move faster than those that emphasize collectivism.” Sounds about right to me. The United States is on one end of this rope and traditional Asian countries like India and Pakistan are on the opposite end. I suppose the logic derives from the understanding that when one is responsible solely for him or her self, the constraint to carry others along is dropped, which relieves the stress and allows a person to proceed with life at his or her desired pace. Whereas when one is responsible for family, relationships take priority over individual achievement and goals.

An interesting conversation took place between my American roommate and me regarding the differences in Eastern and Western culture when it comes to family life. Hailing from a nuclear family, she was amazed to hear that I lived with not just my parents, but also my grandparents, back in India.

“Don’t you feel like your privacy is intruded upon all the time?” she asked, innocently shocked, while all I could think the entire time was how boring and lonely it must be for her to live with only two other people. That’s the thing — one’s own culture feels like the default setting the world is assumed to be at, whereas the reality is very different.

Having grown up in an extended family, I can’t fathom the concept of waking up in a house with only two other people. It’s a rather bland thought. While my roommate has all the freedom in the world to put opinions and her goals first, I have to go through a screening process with each member of my family to ensure a certain value-base is being maintained. After all, when you live with a large family, you represent that large family. Despite the differences, I have come to realize that people are accustomed to their default settings. In fact, given the option to start over, people will automatically choose that setting all over again. That’s how comfortable we have gotten with our respective pace of lives.

I have been living in America for three years now, and I still consider my natural state to be the one I have grown up in. Having lived this fast-paced and individualistic life — loving every thrilling, freeing and empowering second of it — I will still be the happiest nestling comfortably back into my life of answering to my family and ensuring my relationships come before my personal wants.

An eye-opener, isn’t it? How little we know of other cultures and how staunch we are regarding our own.

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