the real value of time vs. the word value of time

20140928_100858I do NOT believe in “Ugandan time”. Time is time; but annoyingly, some people respect it more for its word value than as a quantitative measure or for its numeric, measurable quality.

Coming from this paradigm, my time spent in a European capital with busy business people the other week starkly refreshed my appreciation of time.

The phrase ‘word value of time’ refers to the way people express time in order to appear organised, focussed and sensible. People at meetings tend to say things like, “Two minutes each, everybody, then we move to another issue…” then sit back to allow irrelevant verbiage to flow uncontrolled. Event managers and EmCees holding printed programmes in their hands as they run through events occasionally announce, “Three minutes; I’m giving speakers three minutes each…” then retreat to hover on the sidelines of long, winded speeches that seem to hypnotise everybody into occasionally clapping their hands.

The ‘word value of time’ also accommodates this habit we have of setting appointments with straight faces and agreeing amongst ourselves, nodding wisely and pointing at wristwatches, things such as, “Ten o’clock? Yes, yes. Tomorrow at ten? Right. I’ll be there…”.

The time agreed only matters during the few seconds that you mention it to each other as the agreed meeting time, and often the seriousness with which it is stated evaporates just as time itself does.

Come ten o’clock the next day, and both parties to the meeting arrangement are not only absent from the meeting venue but exchange no apologies for lateness and when they do converge, hours later, most times do not even raise the matter of lateness.

“Better late than never!” they might laugh, which phrase I hate with utmost sincerity because whoever introduced it to my countrymen should have completed it with the appropriate ending (please suggest what this ending should be?) rather than create this compromise position that we have gripped on to as if it is a default position.

My trip last week took me to a business convention in Amsterdam, the International Broadcasting Convention, where I was one of 55,000 attendees of the world’s biggest gathering of broadcasting people.

Time is of such value in broadcasting that the world practically used to re-set their clocks to the pips at the top of the hour on BBC, played according to what the Observatory at Greenwich (the ‘G’ in GMT) read. Serious broadcasters are tested by their adherence to the time they set their programmes at; if your TV channel promises to air the news or your favourite programme at a certain hour, you should be able to set time according to when the programme begins – IF they are serious.

Of course, this matters greatly in places where time actually means something; whereas for some people here, you could set an appointment for “Chicken Soup o’clock” or “A quarter to Yellow Paint” and it would mean much the same thing as any time value you indicate – anything.

The busy business people in Amsterdam were not having any of that, and kept me amused right from the time I landed till I left them in their time-keeping bubble. The hotel shuttles were so on time that occasionally the driver sat idle and wait for EXACTLY the right half minute before reaching across to shut the door then engage gear using a thirty-second provision, before setting off on the dot.

The trains were so exasperatingly well-run that even a five-minute delay was announced before it occurred. In fact, the first two times I insisted on asking the ticket sellers for exactly what markings or numbers I should expect to see on my appointed trains they were confounded because as far as they were concerned, all I needed to do was board the train that docked at the hour they stated, at the platform indicated, and I would be alright.

Now, all those 55,000 people were there for business. Unlike exhibitions where people go in to buy cheap saucepans or building materials, this was a proper business set-up with conferences and meetings all scheduled and run on time. An exhibitor with 55,000 potential customers in one place needed to use time effectively; many had set their meetings weeks, even months ahead, to maximise their use of the five days there.

A ten-minute meeting overlapping by two minutes presented a risk to the next scheduled appointment, and I kept noticing that some people would melt away to start the next meeting according to plan rather than allow the inexcusable type of build up that we see many times here when your midday appointment turns into an evening dinner.

The earnest manner in which meetings, trains and phone calls were scheduled was extremely at odds with the way people I know tend to set meetings at “Between Ten and Eleven…”. That one-hour meeting start time still irritates me – I like having many options but those are 60 different options for a meeting start time!

And that’s without factoring in the start of the meeting being when coffee and tea is poured out…or when some people get into their cars or onto boda-bodas to head to the meeting venue!

The word value of time might have roots in the days when people were respected more if they owned watches, regardless of whether they knew how to read time or anything else; perhaps some people focussed more on the acquisition of the timepiece than on its use. The fact that we have almost as many mobile phones as people should make us more time conscious than most other nations – but we obviously don’t use the clock and alarm and stopwatch features as much as we use the Dialler, SMS and WhatsApp applications.

If we did, with the number of meetings that we insist on holding – fundraising, organisation, business, management, drinking, hookup, fundraising – we’d hear more alarms going off than ringtones and music playbacks, and we would be much, much more organised on the whole!

6 thoughts on “the real value of time vs. the word value of time

  1. Ssebo next time can we meet between 8 and 9!! he he. Seriously, when i am off my dest for 15 minutes i have to find 15 minutes in the weekend to pay back my employer. All our contract bids are expressed in time and an hourly rate!! every employee has to account for time used on each project he is given and when the time is more you must explain why and warn the client yourself!! Not the boss. You learn quickly to prioritise what is important!!


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