Differing Perspectives of Time
Every culture has different views of time and the value of time. Coming to understand how another culture views time can be one of the most difficult parts of living abroad.
In the U.S. we have a ‘monochronic’ view of time. This means that time is linear and almost tangible – something that can be spent, wasted, or saved (Time in Different Cultures, 2017; Helman, 2005). In the American view of time, “time is money”. This means that it is important to be on time – although being on time may have a bit of leeway, depending on the person you are meeting or event you are attending.
When it comes to meeting people, the closer the relationship, the more flexible the time. The more important the person or the more distant the relationship, the more important it is to be on time (Moffitt, 2012).
When it comes to events, the more important or unique the event, the more important it is to be on time (Moffitt, 2012).
In all cases, it is important to realize that people may be upset if you are late. Although they may not realize it, Americans tend to view tardiness as disrespectful. If you are late for a meeting, you are not respecting someone’s other time commitments.
Here are some examples of how to approach time in America. Please note that approaches to time can vary by region and personal background. A good way to avoid any problems is to ask an American you trust about expectations or arrive no later than the specified time.
- Meeting a professor or attending a meeting at work: arrive either a few minutes before the time specified or exactly at the specified time. If you arrive late, you should apologize and, if you know you will be more than five minutes late, you should call to warn the person that you will be late.
- Interviewing for a job: arrive ten to fifteen minutes early. If you must travel some distance, you should try to plan extra time for delays. If you arrive after the specified time, it is unlikely you will get the job unless there is a very good reason you could not have anticipated.
- Meeting friends: you have more flexibility with friends. Most friends will wait for fifteen minutes without becoming upset, some will wait even longer.
- Attending a wedding ceremony: arrive a little early. A wedding is unique and important and it is considered in poor taste to arrive late. You may, however, arrive late to a wedding reception.
- A cultural event (play, ballet, concert in a theater): arrive a little early. Attendants may close the doors once the event has started and will only allow you in during a break. Even if you are allowed in, it is considered impolite to disrupt others when trying to get to your seat.
- A party: arrive on time or even late, but generally not early! It depends on the type of party and the people hosting the party. If a party has scheduled activities like for a birthday party, or a baby or wedding shower, it is best to arrive close to the specified time. If not, feel free to arrive late. In all cases, try not to arrive more than five, maybe ten minutes early, as the hosts may otherwise not be ready to receive guests! Party hosts sometimes even expect guests to arrive late.
If you would like to learn more about time differences and the treatment of time in the U.S., here are some articles you can read (Cooperrider & Nunez, 2016; Helman, 2005; Levine, 2017; Moffitt, 2012; Time in Different Cultures, 2017):
- Some basic ways in which time differs across cultures and why: http://www.exactlywhatistime.com/other-aspects-of-time/time-in-different-cultures/
- Very basic article about time differences with an example: https://theamericangenius.com/business-news/concepts-time-punctuality-vary-across-globe/
- An abstract (abstract = summary of a longer article) about typical ways time is viewed and types of time: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1369268/
- An interesting but somewhat long article about time and how different cultures perceive it in space: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-we-make-sense-of-time/
- An article that speaks about numerous differences in the perception of time and includes several examples: http://nobaproject.com/modules/time-and-culture