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By Tina Soin Sharma

The Unbearable Lateness of Being…South Asian

February 18, 2005. 9:15 AM

One of my New Year’s resolutions almost every year is to be more respectful of time. I am a planner at heart and know that if I actually began all the activities I schedule in my Palm Pilot on time, I would get much more accomplished every day.

The theory sounds great, but I'm South Asian.

In practice, my entire organizational system breaks down. For all the effort
I put into creating the perfect weekly schedule, which would allow me to pack in a productive week of work, chores and extracurricular activities, my follow-through is not very rigorous.

It starts with my waking up later than I should. But, boy, do those 15 extra minutes of sleep seem so necessary. Then, somehow it takes me longer to get ready than I anticipated--probably because I have the Today Show on and I
really need to watch an intriguing upcoming interview an overly cheerful Katie Couric keeps mentioning. "Oh, Scott Peterson’s ex-girlfriend, Amber Frey, is
coming up after the commercial…I’ll just wait the few minutes to hear the juicy tidbits." But those few minutes turn into fifteen because Matt Lauer continues

Tina Soin Sharma; Photo by Rohit Sharma

with other news bits knowing that the captive audience is putting off their morning showers until they get to see the highly-anticipated interview. The interview is usually a colossal waste of time--nothing juicy is revealed. I leave for my shower feeling cheated and knowing that now there’s no way I will get to work on time.

And so the day goes-- I'm late for work, late to get home and too late to cook dinner or do other chores. I reassure myself with the false promise that tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow I’ll wake up half an hour earlier, get to work earlier and be home while the sun is still out. Dinner will be served at six and I’ll have the rest of the evening to myself to conquer my mounting list of errands or read a good book.

Could it be that I am genetically predisposed to follow Indian Standard Time (IST), which makes me disregard the extra half (or whole) hour it takes to begin my day?

What a great plan! In theory, anyway.

As the years go by I wonder if I’ll ever be one of those people who gets to places on time. When I am on time, it feels like I’ve accomplished something extraordinary, like climbing Mount Everest. Why am I chronically late? Could it be that I am genetically predisposed to follow Indian Standard Time (IST), which makes me disregard the extra half (or whole) hour it takes to begin my day? Can I blame my lack of punctuality on my South Asian heritage?

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, that is.

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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