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Let’s Talk About Time, Baby

Posted by on November 12, 2012

This semester I’m taking a course on Cross-cultural counselling. Part of the coursework is a weekly journal reflecting on anything I’ve learned, thought about, or found challenging from the course material. I decided to post parts of these reflections in a weekly series called “Many Villages”.

In class this week, there was mention of the difference in cultural concepts of time. My Prof mentioned that North Americans tend to have a future orientation, while other cultures are more present-oriented, or even past-present oriented. I’m going to guess that anybody who has had any cross-cultural experiences is probably nodding their head on this one.

This got me thinking about the many differing conceptions of time. One huge cultural difference is the value placed on time. As a North American, I am obsessed with time: I see it as one of my most valuable resources. Right now I can see my microwave clock (2:23), my wrist watch (2:22), the watch on my phone, (2:23) and the clock on my stove (      20) (The stove clock is a few crayons short of a box, if ya know what I mean). I am surrounded by, and am extremely conscious of, time. More than that, I place great value on making my life fit into time slots. I know how long it will take me to clean up before Varun comes home (trust me, it looks likes our bedclothes staged a coup d’etat), how long I have budgeted for schoolwork, prayer meeting, work, and chatting with my Mom today. I know that I have about 30 minutes of buffer time, which will likely get used up by unforeseen tasks and a drop-in visit by neighbours. Am I crazy? I don’t think so.

In the West, we live in a world of precision when it comes to time: the timestamp on my Twitter feed gives readings as precise as ’45 seconds ago’; and the fact that the Daylight savings time shift occurs with very little upset is further proof of our time-conscious culture. When pressed with the decision to do something ourselves or pay to have it done, we blithely chirp, “Well, time is money!” and hand over our cash.

I believe this has an enormous impact on how we relate, and how we view relationships. In day to day interactions, I feel time is precious, and I assume that others feel the same way. Therefore, if I met you while rushing down the street to post a letter before running to a meeting, I would smile, give you a brief greeting and rush off. I might excuse myself by saying ‘I’m running late’ or ‘I’ve got to run’, and I would assume that you know life is busy and the clock is ticking.

In contrast, Varun’s understanding of time is quite different. Like millions of others in many cultures, he sees time as one resource among many: a servant, not a master. He looks at his day in broad strokes, making to-do lists and going about tasks at a comfortable (read: slow–to me) pace. I watch the minutes slide by and instantly know when it’s too late for him to start the laundry: it will never be done before the laundry closes for the night. If we are hanging out with friends late on a work night, I’ll subtly glance at my watch, calculating the time it will take to go home, get ready for bed, and the hours left to sleep. For Varun, another friendly discussion is worth the dozens of minutes ‘lost’.

Perhaps the place where this difference is the most acute is meeting times. If I am meeting a friend for coffee at 10, I arrive by 9:55. If I anticipate being more than 5 minutes late, I will text and apologize. If I were more than 15 minutes late, I would spend the ride thinking about how I can apologize enough. I think this is fairly normative behaviour in North America (especially the excessive apologizing in Canada). Thankfully, Varun is also careful about being punctual. However, not everyone sees punctuality the same way I do.

I once spent a summer in Northern Africa. There, I made several friends on the university campus. Often we would exchange numbers and agree to meet the next day. At about 12:55, I would arrive, double-checking my location and the time to meet: 1 p.m. I would stand in the dry heat under a palm tree, watching closely for my new friend. By 1:15, I would check my journal, ensuring I had written the details correctly. I would pace, peer, second-guess and wait, watching the sun arc across the sky and wondering if I misunderstood. Finally, by 2 or 3 o’clock, one of two things would happen. Either my friend would come, kiss me on my cheeks and whisk me to the market, or she would call and cheerfully tell me she had a test this afternoon or went home to see her sister, and would I care to join her tomorrow? In either instance, I was stupefied: did they forget? Did they not care?


Slowly, I learned that time simply had a different meaning in that culture. My friends did not mean their behaviours as a sleight; they were simply acting within their culture norm. I struggle to articulate what that norm even is, as my explanations are laden with Western terms and thoughts.

At any rate, I’m pretty sure this discussion will surface lots of funny stories and misunderstandings, or maybe a few ‘Amens!’. I’m hoping that some friendly readers can share with me a view of time that is different than mine, shedding light on an alternative perception. And for those of you frightened by my militaristic obsession with time, fear not: I have actually hidden the clock on my computer so I can’t see it. Although, thanks to WordPress, I can see that this draft was saved at 3:08:32. Like I said, precise.

Have you ever had a confusing experience because of differing perceptions of time? How do you view time? Do you agree, ‘time is money’? Do you have your whole day timed out? I love hearing your thoughts!

7 Responses to Let’s Talk About Time, Baby

  1. Zhu

    One thing that amazes me in North America is that people have a relatively short memory and don’t hold as many historical grudges as European do. And I mean it in a good way. N. America are forward-thinking, Euopeans like to think they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.

    • Amelia

      Interesting thought. I never thought about that aspect of time. I can see that. Any examples you want to share?

  2. Zhu

    One thing I can think of is the War Museum in Ottawa. It includes some exhibits about events French would consider “current”, such as the war in Afghanistan. For Europeans, it takes time to gain insights on whatever event and they like to wait for a few decades before considering it “history”. N. Americans are much quicker to put the past behind them.

    As for grudges… I was born in the 1980s and we still considered Germany a “bad” country! It’s better now, after the fall of the Berlin Wall Germany became “cool” again, I can see it with my sister who is a few years younger than me and took German at school.

  3. Spops

    I was just writing a paper on “American Values” and a “future orientation” was a value that most of my research produced. Listen to this description, “Time is of the utmost importance. To the foreign visitor, Americans seem to be more concerned with getting things accomplished on time than they are with developing deep interpersonal relations. Schedules, for the American, are meant to be planned and then followed in the smallest detail. It may seem to the foreigner that most Americans are completely controlled by the little machines they wear on their wrists, cutting their discussions off abruptly to make their next appointment on time.” Totally true.

    • Amelia

      Awesome quotation! Excellent what I was thinking. I’d be so curious to read your paper!

  4. Spops

    Also, I was just thinking as I was driving, I wonder if this is why we have such an emphasis on youth whereas most cultures respect age more. Maybe because we are future oriented, we feel like the youth have time and the future and the older people no longer have these so are less valued. I don’t know, just thought 🙂

    • Amelia

      Spops! You are definitely on to something! I’m fascinated by how much we devalue the elderly, and assume they have no important wisdom to share, or even inherent worth. I think our future oriented culture idolizes youth and possibility.

      In other news, we should start a think tank. How about we video chat our amazing ideas and post it on my blog?!

Thoughts? I love hearing from you!