It's About Time

by Syed Zafar

Understanding hidden cultural differences is becoming increasingly important as we enter into the twenty first century. Of course acquiring intercultural understanding helps us in our interaction with the people of other countries. What people don't realize is that it also helps in reaching out to the U.S. co-cultures.

Time: A Cultural Concept

Time is one of the key areas of cultural differences which often stays hidden behind the scenes. Our perception of time is dictated by our cultural orientation. However, usually we don't think of time as cultural. After all, a mechanical timepiece is something outside of our heads and bodies. As you will see in this article, time is a cultural concept. Perception of time changes from culture to culture just as languages and behaviors do. If we want to understand another culture, we need to understand that culture's orientation to time. The conception of time held by the people of the mainstream U.S. culture is neither widely practiced in other countries, nor has it been fully accepted by U.S. co-cultures.

Let's clarify a couple of terms. Mainstream American is being referred to the person who lives by the values of mainstream U.S. culture (also known as the dominant, business or European American culture). The people of the North and South American continent are all Americans, but for this article we use the term only to represent the people of the U.S.A.

The co-cultures referred to are the non-mainstream cultures in the U.S. They include, but not limited to, African Americans, Mexican Americans and Asian Americans. Just a reminder, all members of a co-culture may not necessarily live by the values of their co-culture. It really depends upon one's degree of acculturation to mainstream U.S. values. By understanding time, a crucial hidden cultural value, one may be able to do the following:
1 Have better control over emotional outbursts, which are often caused when others just don't act they way they should (e.g. they are lazy, careless and tardy).
2 Avoid misjudging people of other cultures (e.g. they are very inefficient, slow and lack work ethic).
3 Improve one's interactions with people of other cultures by finding new ways to create win-win situations.
Rigid or Flexible?

In the mainstream American culture, time is perceived as rigid, segmented, limited and linear. Time is treated as a commodity. Time can be saved, wasted or spent wisely. Time is money is a well known proverb in American culture. In contrast, many other cultures hold a different view of time. For Mexicans, South American, Africans and Arabs, for example, time is flexible, elastic, relaxed, unlimited and circular.

How does this different view of time manifests itself in daily life? Punctuality may mean something different to different cultures. A quotation from Argyle describes the meaning of punctuality in Communication Between Cultures: "How late is "late"? This varies greatly. In Britain and North America one may be 5 minutes late for a business appointment, but not 15 and certainly not 30 minutes late, which is perfectly normal in Arab countries. On the other hand in Britain it is correct to be 5-15 minutes late for a invitation to dinner. An Italian might arrive 2 hours late, an Ethiopian later, and a Javanese not at all-he had accepted only to prevent his host from losing face".1 I once took my wife to a Pakistani musical show in Houston. We arrived on time but the program started several hours late. My wife, who grew up in the mainstream U.S. culture, was frustrated by the delay. On the other hand, many Pakistanis did not arrive for the show until one to two hours after the announced time. Last Month, I attended a Mexican musical program at the Rice University with my family. The show started about 45 minutes late with no mention of the delay. Again, much of the audience arrived 30 minutes to one hour after the announced start time. Recently, I returned from my sister's wedding in Pakistan. The ceremony, which was attended by about three hundred people, started several hours late, to the frustration of no one.

Mary M. Munter in her article Cross-Cultural Communication for Managers (EMR, Spring 1995) writes: "An executive in Cameroon tells of a meeting scheduled at 9:00 a.m. in YaoundŽ. People began to arrive at 1:00 p.m. Surprisingly, however, when the last person showed up at 2:00 p.m., the other Cameroonians admonished him for being late".2 When I was growing up in Pakistan, I remember, my father's sense of time was a bit different from the rest of the family. Due to his military training, he was used to a strict time discipline. He devised a technique to make us all leave on time when the whole family was going out together. He used to give us the departure time an hour earlier than what it really was. Thus he allowed for at least an hour's perceived delay. After a while, the family figured out his trick and it no longer worked.
Schedules or Relationships?

To mainstream Americans, time is tangible and extremely valuable, o naturally it is important not to waste it. When this mindset is combined with the value mainstream Americans place on efficiency and doing, it creates even more cultural conflicts. During an intercultural workshop in a small North Texas town, the CEO of the company, who invited me, complained, "We used to able to negotiate a deal with our white customers in a couple of hours. Now these people (referring to Pakistani, Indian and Chinese) come in and talk and talk. The whole day goes by and we still don't have a signed contract. What is going on here?" Asians want to be comfortable with their business partners. The Asian cultures place a premium on getting to know the other party. It is important for them to build trust, which takes time. This relationship-building attitude is not limited to Asians, some European cultures such as the French share this value. Which, of course, drives Germans crazy as they are even more time conscious than mainstream Americans.3 We also see this value on relationship building in Mexican, South American, Arab and African cultures. By segmenting the day into pieces, Americans have a specific time to do each of their daily activities (How else would you achieve an optimum result?) During one of my presentations on the hidden values of mainstream U.S. culture, one of the participants said, "When Indians (referring to the Native Americans) first encountered the European settlers, they made the comment. White man is strange. He looks at his watch and says it is time to eat." I remember an incident during my wife's first visit to Pakistan. Around midnight one of my uncles, who lives in the same city, came to visit us. There was no emergency. Of course, we did not know that he was coming. We all woke up, started entertaining the guest and began making tea and snacks. There was no mention of the time.

During our visit to a relative's home in Toronto, Canada, my wife had a hard time adjusting to the family's schedule. Most days, breakfast was served around 11:00 a.m., lunch around 3:30 p.m. and dinner around 11 p.m. What made for the frustration was that we had our two children, 4 and 2 years old with us, who woke at 6 am, ready for breakfast and fell asleep several hours before dinner time.

Recently we moved our residence and now have a new phone number. We have been getting a lot of phone calls in Spanish. It appears that our phone number was allotted to a Spanish speaking person before. The interesting thing is that many calls, which appear to be personal in nature, are made after 9 or 10 p.m. According to the mainstream Americans, it is impolite to call someone that late. I guess this convention is not followed by Spanish speaking Americans. As matter of fact, I feel very comfortable calling my Pakistani friends at 10 or 11 p.m.

The famous anthropologist, Edward Hall, in his book The Dance of Life tells the story of a U.S. government official who was working with Native Americans on a treaty early in this century. Native Americans were asked to look at the proposal and get back to the official. Around midnight, one night, the tribal representatives came to tell the official their decision. Because of the time of the day, the government official incorrectly assumed that they were there to kill him.4
Present or Future?

Americans are future-oriented.5 (Where else would you find a magazine titled The Futurist?) Americans really live in the future. The present is just a way station. This passion for the future is really not shared even by all European countries. The French are known to be present-oriented whereas the British are often labeled as past-oriented. For Japanese Zen followers, time is like a pool of water. Things just happen. There is no past, present or future. In the Sioux language there is no word for time, late or waiting. Arab countries are well known for their past orientation. Russians are present-oriented. In Urdu, the native language of Pakistan, the same word kull is used for past and future. I did not grow up with a telephone. So the Yellow Pages were something brand new for me when I first arrived in the U.S. I still had the habit of going to a store only to find out that it didn't have what I needed. y wife used to ask, "Didn't you call before going there?" The notion of calling ahead of time requires planning and a future orientation, where my upbringing was in a present-oriented culture. One thing my nuclear family enjoys when my mom visits is her cooking. (I guess I enjoy it more than the rest of the family.) So normally I ask my mom a couple of days in advance what ingredients she needs for the upcoming meals. She always assures me that she has everything. The truth is that many times, in the middle of cooking, she will ask for items we don't have. That shows a present orientation. You deal with it when you get there instead of doing advanced planning. It may not be conscious, but these are the cultural behaviors one develops over a life time. It is not easy to suddenly change those attitudes and behaviors.

Listening to weather forecasts and then living your life accordingly is a sign of a future orientation. The first time I saw the weather report on television, it appeared to be a professor's lecture suited for the classroom with all those big scientific words, graphs, charts and slick presentation. I never imagined weather to be so complicated. Normally when I get to work and see everyone walking around with their umbrellas, I figure that it will rain today. (Of course by that time it is too late.) Here people are trained from their childhood to figure out at least that day's expected weather before leaving the house. I am normally missing my umbrella because it was not raining, the sky did not have dark clouds or birds were not flying very low when I left the house. Here my present orientation gets me wet every time.

Mainstream Americans have internalized the clock to a degree which is beyond the comprehension of many cultures across the globe. So the frustration many Americans face when interacting with people from other cultures (domestic or overseas) is understandable. In today's rhetoric, building the bridge to the 21st century may turn out to be easier than building bridges with other cultures which may appear to be so alien, but are crucial partners for our interdependent life on this planet.

1 Communication Between Cultures. Larry Samovar and Richard Porter. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1991, 220.
2 Cross-Cultural Communication for Managers by Mary Munter, E M R, Spring 1995, 61.
3 Understanding Cultural Differences: Germans, French and Americans, Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1990.
4 The Dance of Life, Edward T. Hall. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.
5 American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Edward C. Stewart & Milton J. Bennett. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1995, 4-75.