Time Telling and Time Management across the World
Time has become a much-valued resource. Most of our daily activities depend on our “time management”, and we talk about how we “spend” and “invest” our time. Time is money, it is said.
Thanks to sophisticated technologies, we today keep time with highest precision. And because official time keeping has become globally unified, we tend to assume that the perception of time is the same for everyone. It isn’t.
The perception of time differs across cultures. In today’s connected world where intercultural communication has become indispensable, it is essential to be aware of how the perception of time differs. Let me explain why this is important and how to go about time telling in intercultural communication.
The Views behind Telling the Time
Humans started to track time some 30,000 years ago. In the beginning, time-tracking systems were rather rudimentary. Hunter-gatherer communities in Siberia, Japan, or South America used cycles of nature and the moon to track time (see source). They named months on the basis of specific natural phenomena associated with them, like the blossom of a tree, the breeding behavior of animals, or the weather. And whether a week lasted five days or nine wasn’t of utmost importance.
Over time, time-keeping systems have become more precise. Today, we count the days in our calendar and name their individual parts, like the “morning”, “noon”, “afternoon”, and “evening”. When more details are needed, we use a numerical system of twenty-four hours, usually split up into halves, quarters, and minutes.
This system exists in all cultures of Europe, and their languages use similar strategies to describe it. In English, 14.45 is described as “a quarter to three” while in German, it’s “a quarter before three” or “three quarters of three”, and in Spanish, it’s “three minus a quarter”.
According to this system, time is seen as forward-moving on an axis. We see the passing of time as linear. We “look into the future” and make plans by “anticipating” time frames and saying that the future lies “ahead”.
This view is different in other parts of the world. In the Andes, speakers of Aymara see the past as laid out in front of them, and they point backwards over their shoulder when talking about the future (see source). This may sound awkward to speakers of English, but if we think about it, the future is indeed invisible to us. Other languages lack verb forms for the past altogether, suggesting that the past is less important to their speakers than the present and the future. These languages show us that our perception of the passing of time isn’t universal but influenced by culture.
Time Management Traps in Intercultural Communication
Also time management differs across cultures. In Western cultures, time is measured with highest precision because complex transportation systems, international supply chains, and also our individual time management heavily rely on punctuality.
Accordingly, “time is costly”. It is said to equal money. We charge for the hours we work and ultimately also for the time we’ve invested in our education to learn the skills we have. We choose with whom we spend our time, and we consider it an expression of respect to not “waste” someone else’s time.
In Switzerland, punctuality is key because it expresses respect for the other person’s time management. You should neither be early nor late in Switzerland, but always on time. It is not surprising that a culture that holds time management in high esteem has brought about the world’s finest watch industry.
In other cultures, punctuality is less relevant. In many non-European cultures, time telling is rather vague, especially when digital time telling is uncommon. In African American English and Nigerian Pidgin English, digital time telling used to be referred to as “white-people time” or an equivalent thereof to indicate a higher commitment to punctuality.
When punctuality is secondary, the focus lies on how much time someone spends with you. In South America, you will rather be blamed for not having enough time for someone. This is because the time spent together helps build a shared context and basically equals trust or intimacy: the more time people spend together, the more they will trust each other.
This has of course an effect on business relations. Shared leisure activities, such as golfing, or having attended the same university courses, often create the most trustful business relationships. When people know each other from spending time together, they have a shared context which allows them to make deals in which “no words are needed”. Sales professionals in these cultures know well that relationship management relies greatly on personal contact and a similar mindset. This is time-consuming, but it pays off in the long run.
Talking about Time
Even if our perception of time varies, we constantly talk about it. When will you visit your parents? By what time will she have left the office? How long will it take him to come to a decision? Language has efficient strategies to give very precise answers to these questions, but as speakers, we don’t always make use of them.
We normally tell time the way we have learned it in our native language. If the other person has a different understanding or if they speak another language, misunderstandings are bound to happen. Among non-native speakers of English, confusion often arises because certain words have different meanings in their first language. Many German-speaking users of English, for example, confuse the words “by” and “until” to indicate a deadline because in German, both words are translated with one and the same word: “bis”.
An even greater challenge are time-related adverbs, such as “soon” or “now”. These words indicate time in relation to the moment we are in. However, they don’t usually mean the same for people from different cultures, even if they speak the same language. Such adverbs have meanings that depend on the context because they come with a context-dependent understanding of immediacy and punctuality.
In Spanish, there are two very frequent words to tell time: “ahora” (“now”) and “ahorita” “(little now”). The former usually means “right now” while the latter is informal and may mean anything from “right now in this very moment” to “perhaps in a couple of hours, perhaps never”. The meaning of these words in their context is acquired at an early age. My daughter once responded to my delaying “ahorita” with a determined “no, Mamá, no ahorita, ahora!”. It is common for Spanish speakers from different countries to misunderstand each other because they mistakenly assume that their understanding of “ahorita” is the same. Context always matters.
In intercultural communication, we cannot take such contextual knowledge for granted. It is important to be explicit. As interculturally competent speakers, we should indicate time with precision to avoid misunderstandings. Tell time in numbers when speaking to people from elsewhere, be it in your native or in a non-native language. And when you use expressions like “now”, “shortly”, “ahorita”, or “in the afternoon”, specify what time you mean. Do not take time for granted.