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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

Grinding: The New “Can I buy you a drink?”

disco queenHere’s the Wikipedia definition for grinding: “Grinding is a type of close partner dance where two or more dancers rub their bodies (especially the genitalia) against each other in a sexually suggestive manner. It has gained popularity at high school and middle school dances especially in the United States where there have been cases of administrators attempting to ban it due to its explicit nature and incidence involving injury.”

Grinding or “freaking” on the dance floor is completely divisive in the reaction it elicits. People under the age of 40 are well accustomed to it and accept it as a fairly normal variety of club dance. Older generations are horrified and find it grotesque and inappropriate. It’s classic culture clash. Siri Agrell in Canada’s The Globe and Mail (November 22, 2007)  says that, “a growing body of research has found that sexually explicit styles of dancing do not lead to casual sex. To those who study human sexuality, modern dance club culture is actually more indicative of an evolution in courtship.”

Agrell quotes Columbia University socio-medical sciences professor, Dr. Munoz-Laboy who says, “Participants in these dances are actually bound by “an elaborate set of cultural rules – a veritable etiquette of gendered scripts for appropriate male and female conduct.” In a study published this month in the journal Culture, Health & Sexuality, Dr. Munoz-Laboy wrote that, “young women are the gatekeepers of dancing boundaries in the hip-hop scene. Even though most dances in hip-hop clubs involve grinding … there are levels of physical closeness that men cannot cross.” This seems to accurately reflect your average club etiquette where grinding is OK but overly tactile (male or female) dancers often end up shunned, nursing a lonely beer outside.

Agrell notes that Kingston physician Jonathan Huber, 32, published a report called “Sexually Overt Approaches in Singles Bars” in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. In it, he states that grinding is simply part of a new script for twentysomething flirting and picking up.  “It’s the new ‘Can I buy you a drink?'”

Some would cite this as indisputable evidence that cultural norms since the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s have grown increasingly base and animalistic and that the answer to it all is a cultural clampdown of fundamentalist fervor. Others, like Huber, take a more anthropological approach to grinding and see this as a neutral evolution in social interaction.

“This is a complete reversal,” he said of the behaviour he observed in bars in Ottawa and Guelph, Ont., while doing his research. “The touching happens at the beginning and only do the other things flow after that. It’s sexually overt on paper, but the intent is not sexually overt.” (The Globe and Mail)

All of this said, it is hard to discount the views of cultural conservatives that are quick to claim that this kind of social interaction, whether or not it leads to sex, is not helpful if what you want is to find a quality romantic partner. Just because grinding is acceptable club behavior and may even be part of modern courtship doesn’t make it a substitute for coffee and conversation.  Fair point.  But understanding the ‘ins and outs’ of grinding will at least make you a savvier and perhaps less pervy addition to the dating marketplace.

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Bjorn Karlman

Border Skirmish – Boundaries in Cross-Cultural Relationships

Voluntary Restrictions
Voluntary Restrictions

You know how it goes: Straight-laced white guy with IBM pocket protector meets exotic young curvy thing from Guadalajara, they fall in love, struggle through no end of relational issues and cultural adjustments and then finally reach some kind of happy cultural equilibrium and live happily ever after. The predictability of these Hollywood cross-cultural romances is touching. But how do you navigate cultural diversity in real-life relationships? Some would say that the most important thing is to break down all boundaries, to create a complete blend of both cultures. I would say the exact opposite: in order to have a successful cross-cultural relationship, you need boundaries. Effective boundary setting is the most effective way to multicultural relational bliss. Here are a few boundaries to watch:

Overgeneralizing: Familiarity in multiclutural relationships can easily lead to slips of tongue and overgeneralizations about the other person’s culture. “You Swedes are such emotionally unavailable bores…”, for example, is not something that needs to be heard. “National and cultural stereotypes do play an important role in how people perceive themselves and others, and being aware that these are not trustworthy is a useful thing,” says Robert McCrae of the National Institute on Aging http://bit.ly/4kXDgE.
“No cultural stereotyping” is a great ground rule for cross-cultural relationships; it will spare you a lot of conflict.

Comfort Levels: It is entirely unfair to expect your significant other of another culture to enjoy or feel at ease with each one of your cultural practices. Come from a loud, spontaneous culture? Don’t judge your boyfriend for his inability to jump straight in and blend in. Decades of conditioning to one way of life are not reversed overnight. Give your partner some space and allow for very gradual change. The Harvard University International Office tells Harvard international students that it is possible to control the discomfort of living in a new culture and the accompanying culture shock. The first step: Realize that dealing with culture shock is tough. Students are advised to reach out to family and others from “back home” to have some connection to their roots. (http://bit.ly/1dMfXT).

Superstition: Whether or not we come from a background of organized religion, most of us have beliefs that seem very true and very important to us. As personal and non-transferable as some of these beliefs may be, we do not appreciate ridicule about them. An example from Filipino culture: turning your plate around when someone leaves during a meal to ward off bad luck. This may look petty or silly to the outside observer but it speaks to the importance of community-building and sharing food in Filipino culture… ignore it at your peril. Check out this article that touches on the benefits of respecting cultural superstition, no matter how strange it may seem: http://bit.ly/2pPlWC.

Historical/Political Pressure Points: It is important to know a little about the historical and political landscape of your partner’s home country. Often, seemingly harmless jokes can have disastrous consequences if they indicate insensitivity about another’s culture. Realize that jokes about political developments in your girlfriend’s country may wreak havoc when her father decides you are an uneducated brute who hasn’t even bothered to understand basic cultural taboos.

Good boundary setting is ultimately one of the most freeing things if you want to have a happy cross-cultural relationship. Solid ground rules and structure facilitate respect and understanding and the ability to appreciate and celebrate differences.

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Bjorn Karlman