Giving time

(featured image credit Chris Zúniga CC BY)

When it comes to what we can do for others, time is the thing.

By the late 1930s, De Beers, which at the time controlled well over half of the global production of rough diamond, had experienced nearly a decade of poor business conditions. During the Great Depression, people had had little interest in buying jewellery (and hence diamonds). But as economic conditions improved, they had a genius idea to kickstart demand again: link diamonds to engagement. Nowadays, 83% of engagement rings contain a diamond centre stone, but 100 years ago that was just 10%. Clearly their campaign has born fruit, but that was thanks to a second genius idea. They also linked the cost of a diamond engagement ring to a time period.


It’s not the money that counts, it’s the time

Proposers should spend one month’s salary on an engagement ring, the advertisements suggested. This was exceptionally clever: by not recommending a particular price point, they not only recognized the wide diversity in purchasing power of suitors, but they also made explicit the magnitude of the commitment that would apply to anyone regardless of their income. The signal of spending the equivalent of a full month’s work could not be more significant, to both the would-be bride and the would-be groom. (Responding to the increased affluence since then, De Beers felt they could up the benchmark to two months’ salary during the 1980s.)

The basic currency of generosity

Perhaps unwittingly, De Beers and their advertising agency hit upon an important feature of giving. Unless we are so wealthy, that we do not need to spend a second working and we can pay someone to obtain a gift, the gifts we give represent our time, both indirectly and directly: the time it takes to earn the money with which to buy the gift, and the time spent acquiring it.

In a sense, time is the basic currency of generosity – and not only when it concerns formal gift-giving.

Russ Roberts, an economist who is known for embracing and propagating Adam Smith’s philosophical as much as his economic wisdom, posted two captivating threads on Twitter last month, which illustrate this very vividly. In one (which he also turned into a blogpost), he talks about the musical Come From Away, about what happened in the small Canadian town of Gander, located on rugged Newfoundland, on 11th September 2001. As the American airspace was closed shortly after the terrorist attacks, 38 international flights bound for destinations in the US were rerouted to its diminutive airport, dropping 6,595 passengers and crew in a town of, at the time, 9,000 people. They all needed food and somewhere to sleep.

And that is what the townsfolk provided. The whole community welcomed the “Come From Away” people (on the island ‘away’ means ‘not in Newfoundland’, so a “come from away” person is a foreigner) as if they were family. More than anything else, their generosity was expressed through the time they gave to the stranded travellers. Aside from the material support (for which the people of Gander had of course had to work – just like prospective grooms have to work to buy a diamond ring), improvising places to sleep, finding preparing food, helping people make contact with the home front and so on… it all meant dropping most of what they would otherwise have been doing – no time for that.

Time for a stranger

But being generous with our time does not require spectacular situations like this, as we are reminded in the second Twitter thread. Here, Dr Roberts himself is a protagonist. He is in Washington’s Dulles airport, on the shuttle train to the terminal where his flight is due to depart. Two women board the shuttle and sit down, when one of them realizes she has left her wallet on the bench. She races back to fetch it, but before she can re-enter the train, the doors close, and she is left standing on the platform, her bags on the train. Aside from Russ, two other people have witnessed what just happened: a flight attendant, and the companion of the woman left behind. They are not actually travelling together, it turns out, but she knows the person left behind was departing from the C gates. She also immediately says she has no time to help with the problem of the abandoned luggage.

Russ asks the flight attendant what time her flight is, but she simply says that she, too, doesn’t have time. He himself has a somewhat neurotic urge to be at the gate at least an hour prior to departure, but reluctantly volunteers that he does have time: he will alight at the C gates with the woman’s bags, in the expectation that she will be taking the next shuttle.

As the train arrives at the C gates, the flight attendant gets up with Russ, saying she will wait with him after all. Obviously, there is no need for both of them to stay with the bags, but she insists she does have 10 minutes, and Russ appreciates the moral support. The next shuttle comes through, but there is no sign of the woman. They confer and agree that if she is not on the next one, they will take the bags to customer service.


Would you be generous with your time and keep an eye on a stranger’s bags? (image: Steven Taschuk CC BY)

No need: she is on the second shuttle and is elated to be reunited with her luggage, giving both Russ and the flight attendant a big hug. But as the woman disappears towards her departure gate, the flight attendant too thanks Russ, saying she knew that she had been wrong to abandon the bags, and should have joined him straight away: “I knew waiting with the bags was the right thing to do – my conscience would have bothered me if I had gone on.” And Russ then confesses he too was tempted to just drop the bags on the platform at the C gates and hope for the best, and humour his irrational unease at being late at his gate.

Despite their initial inclination, they both did decide to give up their scarce time. As Adam Smith says: man aspires to be lovely, and so did Russ Roberts and the anonymous flight attendant. It didn’t come easy, but it was the right thing to do.

Masters of our (and others’) time

We often do have time, or can, if we so wish, make time for others by reconsidering our priorities – whether they are strangers, or whether they are friends or close family. Often, our own time at a particular moment is not especially valuable, while it could be worth a lot to someone else, like the woman in the airport. It is up to us to decide whether we are willing to offer up our time to someone else.

Moreover, even if we do not necessarily want to give our time away to others, we can decide not to take their time away. How often do we make choices that cost others time? Arriving late at a meeting and leaving colleagues to twiddle their thumbs while they’re waiting for us, or leaving stuff lying around the house for someone else to tidy up behind us – those are instances where we steal a scarce resource from others to save our own. We have a choice to be more mindful of these temporal externalities, and respect the time of others as we wish they would respect ours.

So, my dear reader, here is my wish for you for 2020: may you be a good master of time. Time is the ultimate scarce resource, valuable both to give and to receive. May you be generous with it towards others, and may others be generous with it towards you. Happy New Year!


About koenfucius

Wisdom or koenfusion? Maybe the difference is not that big.
This entry was posted in Behavioural economics, Psychology, Society and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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