By Chris Atkins

Just as “characteristic times” exist in science, they may have their cultural equivalents. The best-known example of a “characteristic time” in science is the half-life of a radioactive isotope, such as carbon-14, which is used in the dating of archaeological artefacts comprising organic matter. The idea is that a radioactive isotope will decay by half in a given time, irrespective of how many atoms you start with. This phenomenon gives rise to the often-misunderstood term “exponential decay” and the more commonly abused related term “exponential growth.”

A more everyday example of this phenomenon is how the concentration of a pharmaceutical drug in the bloodstream of a patient decreases as it is metabolized. Knowledge of this is required to determine how frequently the dose needs to be repeated to maintain therapeutic activity at the appropriate level.

What has this to do with culture?

I have lived, studied and worked overseas for the past 20 years or so. The first half of that period was mostly in Australia and New Zealand, which are very similar to the UK where I grew up. I didn’t notice the characteristic-time effect until I moved to North America in the mid-2000s. There, I quickly became aware of what I would call cultural differences that seemed to have a characteristic time associated with them. Whereas the scientific examples are the result of physical laws, these cultural characteristic times are the result of reflexes being supplanted by new, learned behaviour. The two most prominent in my mind were related to driving on the “wrong” side of the road and walking on the pavement (UK)/sidewalk (North America). Of course in North America, the “pavement” is how people refer to the road where cars and bicycles go and, generally, pedestrians should not.

I didn’t find it difficult to learn to drive on the right side of the road, particularly in a left-hand drive car. What I did find more ingrained in me was the “safety glance” over my shoulder when manoeuvring, and particularly so when riding a bike, when I continually looked over my right shoulder rather than the left. It was my inability to correct this well-entrenched habit that contributed to my decision not to get a motorbike in Canada (that and the almost half-year-long winter when it wouldn’t have been possible to use it), but I also found it quite disconcerting on my bike. I didn’t conduct a rigorous experiment – shame on me! – but it was evident that the time constant for changing this was quite long and I had to actively work at changing my behaviour. I’d estimate that the characteristic time for such a change is more than a year, and possibly considerably longer than this.

Pavements proved to be associated with a similar phenomenon. It is much more common in North America to walk on the right on the sidewalk, rather than the more British free-for-all that I had been used to. This practice is much stronger in the United States than in Canada, where walking on the left is almost akin to talking to strangers on the Underground in London – a social and cultural faux-pas and subject to frequent comment if contravened (particularly in Chicago, I found). Anecdotally, the characteristic time for changing this behaviour seems to be shorter than for the safety check, which feels wrong given the importance of the latter, but then cues are provided by other people’s behaviour in this case.

Having recently moved back to the UK, I find that I was probably nowhere near as adapted to my changed environment as I had thought. My safety check is back over my right shoulder with no mistakes as far as I can recall and I happily walk mostly randomly along the pavements, supporting my observation that this has a shorter time constant. I do, however, find myself on the right-hand side more than I might have expected and have discovered that this can be disconcerting to the well-trained UK resident.

No doubt there are other behaviours that are strongly culturally determined, but the two described above constitute those that struck me most strongly in my time in North America, and I certainly found them difficult to adapt to. Another cultural difference is the use of different words, “sidewalk” being a good example.

It also seems to be the case that the phenomena I have described have long characteristic times. It would be interesting to understand whether this has an impact on life for those who remain ex-pats for longer than I did. For example, is the incidence of bicycle (or motor vehicle) accidents due to the lack of a correct safety check higher for ex-pats, and recent ones in particular, than for those brought up in a particular environment? Does anyone even measure these things, which constitute a hypothesis, at least for the science side of C.P Snow’s two cultures?

Photo credit: Dave Riggs Good Advice