Elements of Culture: Attitudes towards Time

Last week we scratched the surface of what language means in a culture, and how our different languages shape and are shaped by what we value and believe. Today we’re going to tackle a specific area of value and belief, and see how our differences there drastically affect our behavior.

Again, the point of all of this is first to examine our own culture, to understand why we feel the way we feel and act the way we do, and second to understand the underlying beliefs and values that make people from other cultures feel and act the way they do. We want to stop judging the world based on our culture, and learn to accept (and hopefully value) the worldview of other cultures.

So…what’s all this about time?

Attitudes Towards Time

Which do you think is more important: the past, the present, or the future? Which do you spend the most time thinking about?

How do you decide what to do each day? Do you make advance plans and schedule things out to meet goals? Do you tackle whatever comes up and respond to the need of the moment? Do you make spontaneous plans?

How late do you have to be before you feel bad about it? How bad do you feel when you’re late? How often does that happen?

How late does someone else have to be before you feel upset? How upset do you feel? How do you feel when someone slows you down or makes you late? Does that question even make sense to you?

An important aspect of any culture is how it views time. Any given culture may be oriented toward the past, the present, or the future. Cultures place different values on schedule vs. relationship. They view appointments through the lens of punctuality or approximate time. Some view time as a commodity to be handled and others do not.

Let’s dive deeper into just one example. I’ll take one from my own upper-middle-class American culture because I know it the best.

“Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.”

Heard that one? Often touted by business professionals and other “successful” people as the best possible way to live your life and achieve everything you should, it’s meant to be taken as advice so obviously good that it’s practically common sense.

I’m not going to argue it one way or the other because my point here is to understand, not to judge. So whatever the value of the end statement, let’s examine what’s underneath it.

What assumptions does the statement rely on? I’ll just name a couple.

1. A deadline or appointment is a clearly defined obligation that should be met.

2. It is possible to arrange your life in such a way that you are early to appointment/deadlines if you try hard enough. (Failure to do so is a personal failure.)

What values does our statement reveal? Again, just naming some.

1. Efficiency. Everything happens more smoothly and more gets done in less time if a schedule is strictly adhered to. Getting more done in less time is the main goal.

2. Self-determination. It’s important to take control of your own life.

3. Achievement. It’s inherently good to achieve as much as possible.

4. The future. Whatever I have to leave behind now to be on time will be worth it because the future gains are more important.

Then we can dig down one layer further to some of the beliefs underlying those assumptions and values.

1. The belief that the world allows me to have control over my own life.

2. The belief that accomplishing more will make my life and/or the world better.

There are more beliefs involved, of course, but just those two are hugely foundational.

Now imagine that I don’t believe those things. Imagine I believe that accomplishments don’t ultimately make any difference and only relationship matters or that I believe that the world is completely beyond my control and whatever happens is just what happens. Imagine how that would trickle back up to the behavioral level, to how punctual I am and how I view the punctuality of others.

From a different cultural point of view, an obsession with being on time can seem misguided and exhausting, or arrogant to the point of delusion.

Common sense is not so common after all.

Look back at the questions I asked in the beginning. Can you identify the values and beliefs that underly your answers? Can you see ways that others might answer those questions differently than you? Can you begin to imagine what values and beliefs they might hold that would cause their different behaviors and feelings? How could understanding those things help you bridge the gap if you have to work with someone like that? Or teach them? Or learn from them? Or live with them?


It’s interesting to note that while my culture values accomplishment over relationship (to the point that we often view relationships AS accomplishments), I can choose other values for myself. In fact, I’ve done just that. I have chosen to reject that element of my culture on a conscious level and place higher value on the people around me than on what I get done. We aren’t slaves to our culture, after all.

Breaking away is hard, though. When I’m getting work done and someone I love interrupts it, I have to consciously choose to remember what I value, to willingly set my work aside and make a different priority. Someone from a more relational culture would do it without a second thought.

And though I no longer consciously hold to the belief that it’s my accomplishments that will make everything better, I still end up largely structuring my life around schedules and punctuality. Because those things feel comfortable to me. And as long as I don’t let that rule me or derail the conscious choices I’m making, there’s no reason not to go with what feels comfortable.

As I said before, there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with living by a schedule; it only causes problems when I think it’s inherently better than living any other way.

Is it better for me? More relaxing? More satisfying? Sure.

But am I better than someone who doesn’t live that way? Nope.

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