I remember the first Filipino party that I ever attended. The host told us to be there at 5:30pm and so my husband and I (very naively) arrived at 5:25pm, on-time yet a little early. From the moment we stepped inside we were greeted with absolute chaos! Tita Fay still had her hair in curlers; the smell of fried lumpia filled the house as her Lola was busy trying to set up the buffet. Children were sweeping the floors, no one had bathed and, in general, everything looked disheveled and crazy – not even close to being ready for the party! This is how I discovered the cultural differences of time.
Tita Fay had told us to arrive at 5:30 PM but we should have known better. Fast forward ten years and today I would have known that 5:30 PM meant be there around 7:00 PM. What I was facing was a difference in the concept of time. It was the classic East vs. West, people vs. events, and I have come to love and appreciate both.
My junior year of college I enrolled in a course called Biculturalism. The instructor was a Korean American woman who was constantly looking out across a room of Western born and bred students and trying to teach us to accept and appreciate other cultures. I imagine she often felt like she was beating her head against the wall! Of all the cultural sensitivities she tried to pound into my head, one thing stuck: some cultures tend to value relationships over events; others place more importance on events rather than relationships.
Eastern Concepts Of Time
Eastern concepts of time tend to be cyclical, focusing on the unstructured events that are happening during that moment in time. For example, if you are in a hurry to meet a friend for lunch but your mother-in-law unexpectedly drops by, you do not hurry one meeting to get to the other. In this way of thinking, people and relationships almost always trump whatever event is happening.
Western Concepts Of Time
For those of us raised in culturally Western households, a huge importance is placed on time. My father always said if you are not ten minutes early then you are late. This works fine until you arrive ten minutes for a dinner party at an Asian American home and are greeted with looks of bewilderment! In a Western setting time is seen as concrete and fixed. Meetings and events are not held for anyone that might be running late as the event itself tends to be more important than the people who are attending.
While there are exceptions to both, in addition to learning the language of a country, it is also important to learn and appreciate whatever time structures are in place. For instance, in Japan it is insulting to be late to a business meeting while in Arab societies meetings can be 30 minutes late and no one is offended or concerned. In countries with unpredictable transportation, it is oftentimes amusing for them to think about always being on time; it’s just not feasible!
As you are learning a new language, take a few moments to also learn and appreciate whatever concept of time drives the culture. Keep an open mind and remember that it’s not an issue of better or worse, just different!