Sociologists have actually delved into cultural
differences with respect to time. In graduate school, I took a course
on "Cultural Diversity" hoping it would be an easy credit
(and yes, I was chronically late for that class but the culturally
sensitive teacher never objected, perhaps because I was confirming
the sociologists’ claims). Chapter 7 of our textbook, Cultural
Diversity in Organizations (Cox, 1993), outlined several examples
of cultural differences, with time and space orientation being the
first. The basic premise is that culture is an important influence
on human behavior: Orientation toward time varies across cultural
groups. The Euro-Anglo culture has a linear time orientation, which
allows for the separation of time into quantifiable, discrete units
with fixed beginnings and endings for events. In contrast, Americans
of African, Mexican, Asian and Arab descent traditionally have circular
or procedural time orientations, which essentially treats time as
irrelevant. Behavior is activity-driven and takes as much time as
is needed for its completion. South Asians are not the only minorities
who are not obsessed with punctuality. Apparently, just as we have
Indian Standard Time, African-American social events are planned around
CP (or colored people) time, said the textbook.
So, if it took me 15 minutes instead of 5 to watch the Amber Frey
interview I can accept that as my cultural disposition. In theory,
Also, it appears that Hinduism and Buddhism, two major South Asian
religions, preach a relaxed attitude about time to their practitioners.
The Gita, one of the philosophical scriptures of Hinduism, describes
time as infinite. The Gita says that humans came from infinity and
will go back into infinity (once we get it right during our lives
on Earth). How could being a few hours late matter when you’re
dealing with such a heady concept as infinity, I wonder? The insignificance
of my over-scheduled day is really brought into focus when I compare
it with infinity.
Time is endless and boundless so I shouldn’t despair over a
little thing like punctuality--in religious theory, that is.
Theories are great--but I needed practical proof
that my unfulfilled resolutions aren't my fault. In all fairness,
my punctuality problem could be a personal issue and not something
I can blame on my cultural roots. To find out, I interviewed an Anglo-American
and a fellow South Asian for their views on lateness. My Anglo-American
friend, Monica Armstrong, instantly remembered a favorite quote of
her paternal grandfather’s: “I’d rather be an hour
early than ten minutes late." he said repeatedly to a young,
impressionable Monica. Monica is a very punctual person. Her mother,
however, is always late for everything, which vexes Monica to no end.
Monica doesn’t see punctuality as a cultural issue, but more
of a personality issue. She is organized to the max and has a Type-A
personality that feels a strong need to be on time to all her appointments
and events. But, she points out that her Anglo-American friends fall
into both categories--the chronically late and the persistently punctual.
My other interviewee, Reena Mahmood, a fellow Indo-Canadian--who
was, incidentally late for our talk--has a similar take on the South
Asian punctuality problem. She doesn’t think it’s a South
Asian issue because her parents always extolled the virtues of punctuality.
Reena says, “It’s ironic that I grew up in Canada and
am constantly late but my parents were born and raised in India and
they don’t run on IST." She blames her lateness on poor
planning and constant procrastination.
To be fair, I do know several South Asians who are generally punctual.
I guess it comes down to the classic nature versus nurture type of
debate. How much of our behavioral characteristics are a result of
our own unique personality traits and how much is a result of our
centuries old and well-ingrained cultures?
Incidentally, I am struggling to get this article finished. It was
supposed to be on the editor's desk last week. But it is still on
time for the next issue--in theory, anyway.
Tina Soin Sharma is a manager in the Planning & Development Department of a media company. She is an Indo-Canadian transplant adjusting to life in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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