Hidden Paris - 
Article published the Thursday 25 November 2010 - Latest update : Thursday 02 December 2010

A stopwatch, a piece of string and Parisians display their true colours

No time to dawdle - a Parisienne walks past a Hermès shop
AFP/Miguel Medina

By Molly Guinness

If you tell Bob Levine the average time it takes a person to walk 60 feet in a given city, he can tell you how many people live there, how likely they are to help each other and the average income. Levine has conducted experiments around the world on the way people use time. This week, RFI used his methods on Paris – and can reveal results that correspond within tenths of a second to Levine's own 1996 data for France.

“When we look at the way people use time and the way they act towards time, it often gives us an insight into the way they live their lives and what they value that they wouldn’t be able to tell you if you just asked them,” says Levine, a professor of psychology at California State University.

Stamp acts

The post office experiment threw up some wild results.

The experiment:

Write a note saying you'd like a stamp; hand it to the post office official and time the length of the transaction. It must be conducted non-verbally to allow for experimenter variation, Levine specifies.

Most transactions took about a minute, putting Paris bottom of the rankings, below even Mexico in the table of 31 countries collated by Levine.

Not a single experimenter found people were surprised to be handed a note. They were treated as if they were speaking normally in all the sampled post offices. There was some debate as to whether the transactions should be measured from the moment of joining the queue, given the widespread Parisian practice of queue-jumping. And one result threw out the average to take account of this.

In a post office in the 19th arrondissement, researcher Clea Caulcutt found herself conducting a non-verbal transaction for four minutes 15 seconds.

The electronic till which issues stamps froze, then the woman started chatting to the next client in line, then she had to retrieve the stamp book from the back of the post office and then a woman asked the experimenter about a photocopier. This result moved the average from 71.8 seconds to 148.4 seconds, better tallying with most people's anecdotal experience.

In Levine's samples, Mexico was bottom on 70 seconds, while Kenya came second-last on 42.5.

Slow walkers are more likely to help out a stranger. In cities where they walk fast, there's a higher rate of heart disease, and incomes are higher, too.

To get hold of this information, the first thing to do is get hold of a 60-foot (18.29m) piece of string. Then you need to find a straight, broad bit of pavement - in Paris this is harder than it sounds. Measure out the space, retreat to an inconspicuous distance and sit in wait for the population to reveal its soul. You will need a stopwatch.

You learn to spot anomalies quickly. At first you’ll be willing to take a chance; you’ll press start on the stopwatch for a man who has spent a minute or so stationary, staring at the pavement, only to find he will make an elaborately chivalrous pause to allow someone to pass a lamppost.

Pauses must be discounted from the data, but other anomalies are more borderline. In the first sample, at Marx Dormoy, one woman took an astonishing 48 seconds to cover the distance, radically altering the average from 12.07 to 15.67.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting to get inside that person’s head,” says Levine. “Measuring walking pace really gives a nice structure to people-watching.”

Tony Cross
  • A stopwatch or watch with a good second hand.
  • A 60-foot-long tape measure or roll of string.
  • For the post office measure, you will need transportation to get around town.
  • The handouts.

But it also throws up some tricky methodological questions.

“Should we use means? Should we use medians? Should we use the Olympic scoring system and knock out the outliers?”

Do you count the children and the old people? The couples, the people wearing uncomfortable shoes, people carrying bags, people on the telephone (contrary to received ideas, mobile telephones and takeaway coffees are actually slowing the pace of life)?
In a way, you have to; they are, after all, part of the city. Taking data on a Sunday, as some of our research team did, may slow people down; but Levine agreed that this was perhaps counteracted by the inclement weather that Paris was suffering on the day.
The social scientist must beware, too, of contaminating the experiment conditions. Sticking a piece of paper on to a shop window to mark the beginning of the course next to Saint Paul metro station turned out to be a terrible idea: people stopped to read it. Still, it shows people aren’t in too much of a hurry, willing to read an upside-down flyer.
“It’s not the actual speed,” says Levine. “It’s not the few seconds that you save in a day that’s going to have an effect on the economy or on people’s success at work. It’s more the sensibility of wanting to speed up or not."
And so to the results.

Further reading
Professor Robert Levine
Professor Robert Levine

A Geography of Time, Robert Levine

Women scored an average of 12.57, men 12.16, giving an overall pace of 12.37 seconds. Now, though, Levine admits pace experiments can often feel like working with a sledgehammer, his 1996 data from France - in which though Paris was not sampled - produced a remarkably similar result: 12.34.
It's national.
“Those are certainly fast speeds in line with what you’d expect from a country with a vital economy,” says Levine, and he’s not surprised that Parisians demonstrate a discrepancy of more than one second between working and non-working hours.
“Paris is exhibit A of a country that holds to the importance of time," says Levine. "In the United States when we have a labour strike it’s always about money. In France carrying the torch when we see these labour strikes they’re often about time, about retirement age, the average work week. This is a very powerful statement.”


tags: France - Hidden Paris - Paris - Science - Time
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