Whose time is it anyway?

By Ariane Curdy B.Sc., M.Sc. Intl Management

It was late in the afternoon, and I was dearly regretting my decision to have temporarily suspended my privileges (the use of the Land-Cruiser with driver) in order to meet friends in a nearby town. I had been sitting for hours in this dusty and hot African market, staring at the public bus that was supposed to take me to my destination. My "Swisshood" was put under a huge amount of stress: what kind of country is this where buses only leave when they are full? But suddenly, magically, people from all over the place approached MY bus - and within minutes, we were gone. Hurray! However, we stopped 20 minutes later since it was time to pray!

Different concepts of time are among the most challenging aspects when working abroad. It's not that cultures have different notions of "punctuality" it is more that they perceive and organise time differently. "You muzungus1 have watches. We Africans have time...!" - that's how it was put to a colleague of mine while he was waiting for interpreters who were already two hours late.

The culture of humanitarian organisations is largely ruled by the more western "monochronic" time perception2. "You muzungus have watches ..." time is perceived as linear, precise, tangible, and measurable. Things are planned, and done one after the other. Appointments are strictly kept. When taking a train in Switzerland, I am still amazed at this identifiable Swiss feature: unlike African buses, 80% of the trains arrive within one minute of the schedule! In monochronic cultures, "time is money" - there are strict deadlines, quarterly reports, time management, and yearly objectives and budgets. Does this sound familiar to you?

Many countries in which humanitarians work, are more "polychronic" cultures. "We Africans have time ...": time is perceived as elastic and relative. Various activities may be carried out in parallel. Time commitments are desirable, but not considered absolute ("tomorrow ... insh'Allah"). Moreover, schedules are secondary to relationships. You show you value people by giving them time.

I had an appointment with an Iraqi official. I was on time, and waited for him in the lobby. When he finally arrived - eagerly talking with three people - he acknowledged my presence and greeted me. But some other men entered the lobby and engaged a discussion with him. At the same time he was quickly dealing with a matter involving his secretary. When the official eventually led me into his office, we had a fruitful but (for me) difficult meeting, since we were constantly interrupted by phone calls and by people popping in. These repeated disruptions gradually irritated me. They also made me feel as if I was not being taken seriously! Only retrospectively did I consider and come to understand that due to his valuation and perception of relationships and time, it would have been impolite not to deal with everyone who called or knocked at his door. This fact was confirmed when I paid him an unannounced visit a few months later. I was promptly let into his office, even though he was in a meeting with somebody else already!

But to ease down on schedules or to learn to take advantage of waiting times or delays, is only one part of the challenge, as different 'time orientations' also have other consequences. How many times (in order to measure, register or assist beneficiaries), have I tried - and mostly failed - to have people simply line up. "It is not that difficult, is it?" It has frequently felt like trying to spread a drop of quicksilver that was constantly reverting to globular form. Often a great number of poles, checkpoints, ropes, and helpers would be needed to achieve something resembling a line. No wonder as the notion of lining up is a direct result of applying the western monochronic time perspective. One thing, one sequence, one person, orderly, after the other. Have you ever tried to jump a queue in a train station in the UK? I did recently, and can tell you that orderly sequences have stern defenders there. If you have ever lined up nicely in India to buy a train ticket you're probably still waiting, with people continually passing in front of you.

The influence of 'time orientation' on food preparation can be especially pertinent for field staff. During household assessments in the polychronic Middle East, I happened to show up unexpectedly around meal hours: there was always plenty of cooked food ready irrespective of the time it took to prepare it, just in case a guest - like me - would drop by unexpectedly. In other words, I kept on eating all day long. In monochronic cultures, there are fewer chances to get invited, since only the right quantity of food for the household is prepared. Bad luck for you!

It's a real eye-opener discovering the many effects different concepts of time have on how cultures organise their environment and daily life. At the same time this doesn't necessarily make mutual understanding any easier.

Show footnotes

1Swahili for 'foreigner'

2See Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language, Anchor Press 1990

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Reference this page

Ariane Curdy (2001). Whose time is it anyway?. Field Exchange 14, November 2001. p13. www.ennonline.net/fex/14/whose