Cultural Perspectives on Time

Our cultural backgrounds shape much of how we view the world around us, including our concept of time. Some cultures have a polychronic view of time, while other cultures hold a monochronic view of time.

Being from the United States, I identify with a monochronic culture. Growing up I was always taught that it is bad manners to be late. I was even taught that it would be better to be a few minutes early than to be a few minutes late. Now, most of my friends at Bridges come from a polychronic culture, where showing up at the time of the event is rude; showing up early is unthinkable! Showing up early to an event or at the set time of the event would make the hosts rush and inconvenience them. Instead, it is more honorable to arrive after the set time of the event. Both my friends and I are seeking to honor our hosts, but we consider completely different things to be ‘good manners!’

Can you see how these two vastly different views of time might make for some uncomfortable situations or even hurt feelings?

Imagine a group of students from a monochronic culture attending an event hosted by a group of students from a polychronic culture. In an effort to honor their friends’ time, the monochronic students arrive right at the time of the event: 8 PM. When they arrive, their polychronic friends seem surprised by their arrival and still have a few things to prepare. The guests feel that they may have offended their friends, but they are not sure what they might have done. After all, they were right on time!

Next week, the students from a monochronic culture want to host an event for their friends from a polychronic culture. The time of the event, 8 PM, has come and gone. Everything is ready and the hosts are beginning to wonder if their friends are still coming. Not wanting to disrespect their hosts’ time and make them feel as rushed as they felt, their friends make sure that they will arrive at a respectful time, 9:30 PM. When they arrive, it seems that their hosts are surprised that they actually came. But why would their hosts think they wouldn’t come?

Do you think that these friends would benefit from a discussion on their cultural perspectives on time? It is helpful to know if you identify with a monochronic culture or a polychronic culture and how this impacts the way you interpret different events and situations.

Now, you may be asking, “What exactly is a monochronic culture? What is a polychronic culture?”

In a monochronic culture, you:

  • Arrive at or even a precautionary 2-3 minutes before the set time of an event or meeting, the goal being to arrive precisely at the time of the event.
  • Structure how you spend your time and keep a tight schedule.
  • Often prefer to work on one task at a time.
  • Feel that having and meeting deadlines is very important.
  • Need to feel that you have a plan that you can stick to. Changing plans may be difficult for those who identify strongly with monochronic time culture.

In a polychronic culture, you:

  • Prefer to work on multiple tasks at a time.
  • Do not mind changing your plans and can do so often and easily.
  • Arrive after the set time of the event.
  • Like to keep your schedule flexible so that you can make time for more close relationships and plan changes.

Do you identify with one of these cultural perspectives more than the other? Feel free to share about your culture’s view of time with others!

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