Does anybody really know what time (zone) it is?

The other day I was on an airplane. You must think I am always on airplanes. I am. There are barn swallows that spend less time in the air than I do.
I was flying home from Nashville via Washington, D.C., and sitting across the aisle from me was a woman in her late-20s who manages a children’s clothing store in Tennessee. I mention her job so you know that she has actual, grown-up responsibilities — work that matters — and wasn’t merely going to the nation’s capital because she has something to do with our government. We were sitting opposite the flight attendant, who was facing us in the jump seat.
As we were climbing after takeoff, the woman said to the flight attendant, “I don’t fly much. Do you?”
The flight attendant, a woman a little older than the store manager, thought she was kidding and laughed graciously.
“I’ve never been to Washington,” the passenger went on. “I thought it would be a much longer flight to the West Coast.”
The flight attendant and I glanced at each other, but I wasn’t about to say a word. Then she said patiently to the store manager, “We’re going to Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital. Are you on the right plane?”
“Oh, I know that,” the woman giggled. “I’m going to a wedding there. It just looked so far away on the map.”
“Washington state is far away from Nashville,” the flight attendant said patiently. “But the capital? Not so much.”
At this point the woman said — and this is an actual quote, not a columnist’s hyperbole — “What? Isn’t Washington, D.C., in Washington state? Why would the city not be with the state? Isn’t Washington in Washington!”
I won’t torment you with the rest of the conversation, but this woman also didn’t realize that Chicago was north of Nashville and that the flight east was passing through a time zone. When I explained to her that our time in the air was one hour shorter than it showed on her itinerary because we were moving from the Central to the Eastern Time Zone, it was as if I had just broken the news to her that the Earth revolves around the sun or that some “American Idol” contestants have coaching.
Now, this woman was no idiot. She was pretty sharp when it came to children’s coaching. To wit: She told me more than I needed to know about the trend toward organic T-shirts in kids’ wear, and she observed rightly that my daughter would have loved her store’s “completely rockin’ guitar skirts” if she were five or six years younger.
But the idea that she could manage a small business and yet have no clue that Washington, D.C., is three time zones east of Washington state — or that her own city was a time zone west of the nation’s capital — scared the heck out of me. At the risk of sounding middle-aged and cranky (two things I am, though I try not to flaunt it), I find it disturbing that someone well into her 20s can function in business without having mastered time zones. I would be more forgiving if she lived in parts of Indiana, where no one has mastered time zones because no one’s sure what time zone they’re in. Eastern? Central? Hoosier? It seems to change annually there. Likewise, it would be one thing to presume Washington, D.C., was near Seattle if you were 7 years old. But 27?
So, here’s a solution. Imagine if before any of us could log onto Facebook or iTunes, we had to watch a 15 second edu-bit: One moment it was a map that showed us where Estonia was, for instance, and the next it might be the definition of “ablution.” After that there might be a fact about Iraq. Imagine if all television shows (especially reality TV shows) had to offer a 30-second edu-mercial every 30 minutes that taught us something about the Constitution. Or Vietnam. Or … time zones.
Can we reverse the trend toward imbecility? Probably not. But we can at least encourage adults to know what time zone they’re in.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on June 1, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “Does anybody really know what time (zone) it is?

  1. Kellye L. Parish says:

    I have to admit, I find the idea of edumercials a really interesting one considering the U.S. is one of the most powerful countries on the planet and is one of the dumbest ones too…kind of embarrassing when you think about it.
    ‘Course, I think it’s all that TV that’s causing a jump in idiocy but I’m an English major, so I’m a little biased. I think things that are direct experience like visual media are making people cognitively lazy.
    We wouldn’t be nearly as stupid if people would *gasp* read a book once in awhile. Even if it was just fiction, some of that background information would soak in by osmosis. People would learn without even realizing it. Like subliminal intelligence. >:)

  2. Jess says:

    I always felt sorry for my friends and teachers who lived in Indiana but worked in Cincinnati. I wonder how confusing it was for them to switch time zones every morning and every evening?

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