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Punctual, Lifeless Bores: The problem with time-centered cultures

punctual Jack is a dull boy
punctual Jack is a dull boy

I grew up entirely confused about the concept of time and punctuality.  I was raised by Swedish parents in the Cavite province of the Philippines.  On the one hand, I had an exceedingly punctual Northern-European father who was not a fan of bathroom breaks on trips and always wanted to arrive early to anything scheduled.  On the other, Filipino custom dictated that it was almost rude and certainly awkward if you arrived to social engagements when they were officially scheduled to begin.  It was explained to me that if an event starts a certain hour, you are still on time if you come at any point during the course of the hour.  Arrive at 6:48 PM for an event that started at 6:00 PM?  Well done. The Germans arrived at 6:00 PM and got to sit in uncomfortable silence while their local hosts finished food prep and scratched their heads in bewilderment at the newbies that obviously had not been issued the memo.

As I grew older, I became more and more interested in the difference between time-centered cultures (cultures that value punctuality above all else) and event-centered cultures where the timing of an event is less important than the quality of the experience.  Obviously no culture fits either mold perfectly but there are certainly noticeable trends.

A May 5, 2008 article in Thailand’s The Nation starts higher level when comparing cultures: “There is an explicit difference between the task-oriented business culture and the people-oriented one, which affects the way business is conducted. The former prioritises clarity in communication and equates directness with sincerity. The latter regards harmony within the group and interpersonal relations as the top priority.

Time and scheduling are also viewed differently. In the rigid-time culture, punctuality is critical. That is, business schedules and meeting agendas are always fixed as people are time-conscious and schedule-obsessed. In the flexible-time culture, strict punctuality and rigid scheduling get less emphasis.”

As much as I like my trains to leave on time and as much as I appreciate punctual, North American ends to business meetings, I’ve got to say that when it comes to what I ultimately value most in life, I am more drawn to event-centered or, as, The Nation puts it, “people-oriented” culture.  Punctuality is poor consolation if you live in a society where you are not encouraged to savor time spent with others.

Obviously, it is possible to take time out to “have a life” in time-centered cultures and one should not automatically expect meetings to start late in cultures that are more typically people-centered.  In fact, business strategist Godfrey Parkin claims that, “In a business meeting context, the sensitivity to punctuality is always less cultural than contextual. And within that context you cannot make sweeping statements about national cultural attitudes to time because corporate culture plays a major role in guiding those attitudes.”  He gives examples of being the last person to turn up for meetings he himself was running at companies in Brazil and Mexico while giving up on the punctuality of half the group at events in the US and UK.

Despite the exceptions and the nuances though, I AM going to commit the unpardonable cross-cultural sin and generalize:  Time-centered cultures slowly sap the life out of you.  On a person-to-person level, there will always be examples of people that are punctual and yet are fun to have at a party.  But when time keeping and punctuality become the guiding forces of a culture, I say you cease to really enjoy life. The siesta-taking, party-going, San-Miguel-beer-loving Filipinos in the fishing village I spent a few months working in several years ago, were far more engaging and happy than a lot of the time-obsessed bores I have come across in the world’s affluent urban centers.  I would say that as far as happiness is concerned, cultures cannot be seen as equal.  For your own, personal well-being, it pays to be aware of what your culture prioritizes and then compensate appropriately so you achieve some balance.  With that, I’ll wrap this post so I can make it to my book circle on time…

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Bjorn Karlman