Greek time


My wife’s parents were born in Greece, and all her blood relatives, except her sister, were raised in Greece. I was raised in a white, upper-middle class American family in New Jersey. As you might expect, I struggled to understand my wife’s family’s conception of time.

Here’s the way I originally understood “Greek time”: Greeks are always late. The Greeks even make fun of themselves for this. I once heard this joke: Two Greek bump into one another in the market and make a plan to meet up that evening. One friend will come to the other’s house, which is a ten minute walk away, sometime around 6. By 6:30, the visitor still hasn’t arrived, so the host calls her friend, who says on the phone, “Yes, yes, I’m coming now!” At 6:45, the visitor still hasn’t arrived, so the host calls again, and the friend says, again, “Yes, yes, I’m coming now!” By 7, the visitor isn’t there, so the friend calls a third time, and this time the visitor loses her temper: “How do you expect me to get over to your house when you are calling me all the time?”

I don’t think the Greeks are alone in being perceived this way by people like me. (To be fair, I didn’t really perceive of the Greeks at all for my early life; I thought of all Greeks as ancient until I had a crush on one.) I’ve heard of “Mediterranean time”, “island time”, etc. etc. Apparently, in Brazil, you can refer to “English time” if you want to be clear that a rendezvous should be at the literal clock time that was discussed.

But I wasn’t ungenerous in thinking that Greeks were late. I understand that practices differ in different cultures. I thought that Greek time was a difference in understanding about what it meant to be politely “on time”. When my wife and I host parties, we always joke about who will arrive at the party’s nominal start time (when we are still finishing cooking), who will show up a courteous 15 minutes late, an acceptable 30 minutes late, or a lackadaisacal one hour late. I appreciated that “on time” depends on things like what the social event is. You should definitely not be an hour late for a sit-down dinner party, but you can be an hour late for a standing-room-only cocktail party (back in the misty ages of 2019 when we had such events).

Greek time, I reasoned, was mostly the same as my time, just delayed by somewhere between 30 and 120 minutes. When my in-laws planned parties, I noticed that they would tell the Americans one start time, and they would tell the Greeks a time about an hour earlier, to make sure that everyone showed up together. (The Greek-Americans were unpredictable.)

Over time, I’ve come to understand that Greek time is a much more complex, rich, and rewarding thing than I first understood. I’ll try to explain using an analogy that I came up with but which Greeks might say is hugely incorrect. Regardless, it helped me understand, so I hope it might help you understand too.

The Greek language has at least three words for “time”: chronos, ora, and kairos. Chronos, from which we get English words like “chronological” and “chronometer”, refers to the literal and sequential passage of time. In modern Greek, chronos can also mean “one year”. Ora, literally “the hour” or “one hour”, also refers to clock time. In Greek, “what time is it?” is literally “what is the ora?”

Kairos is sometimes interchangeable with chronos and ora, but it has a more metaphorical flavor. It refers to time in the sense of being the opportune moment. If you say it’s the right ora to call your friend, you probably mean that you had an agreement to call at a certain clock time, or that you booked time in your daily calendar for this task. But if you say it’s the right kairos to call, you mean something more. Maybe you’re now in the mood to talk to your friend. Maybe you have a story that you really want to tell them. (Confusingly, kairos also means “weather”, but I think this overall fits in my picture. It’s the right ora to go to the beach if you’re following an itinerary; it’s the right kairos to go to the beach if it’s sunny.)

I was raised to believe that the “time” you should go to a party or go to dinner or call a friend has everything to do with the clock. If you agreed on a clock time, that’s the clock time you must be there. But I came to appreciate that, for the Greeks, there are many factors affecting when it’s the right “time” to do something, and these things only have a rough relation to clock time. The right time for dinner is surely some time in the evening, but it has to do with how hungry we’re feeling, whether we’ve come up with a good plan, if people are feeling antsy or relaxed, whether we’ve gotten everything else done, etc. etc.

Since this revelation, clock time feels like an insipid, one-dimensional way to address the multifaceted concept of when is the right “time” to do things. It’s like being asked to rate every food on a scale of 1 to 10. I hate ham, so that’s a 1, and I love (real horitatiki) Greek salad, so that’s a 10. But will I eat some ham on (Western) Easter? Yes. And will I not want to eat Greek salad every day, at every meal? No (but just barely). How can a 1 to 10 scale express the fact that every food has a time and place, and that what I want to eat has to do with what I’ve eaten recently, where we’re eating, and who I’m eating with? And how can a single clock time express a family’s mutual desire to embark on some activity?

I don’t disagree that Greek time is, roughly speaking, 60 minutes behind American time, any more than I deny that the mean height of US men is 14 cm higher than the mean height of US women. But just as mean height ignores all variability in height, and all the other interesting variations in human forms, and all the complexity of what we mean by “sex”, so also it pains me to say that Greek time is just American time, but delayed by 60 minutes. And I no longer think it’s that the Greeks are unable to mentally adjust to American time, it’s more that they don’t want to give up this richer conception of time and exchange it for a bleak and unforgiving mathematical datum.