Different Cultures, Different Relationships to Time

I came across an article this past week titled “A Norwegian City Wants to Abolish Time” (you can find it here) — it caught my eye, partially because it seems an impossible endeavor and partially because the concept of time, and how we relate to it, is always interesting from a cross-cultural perspective. In my mind, getting rid of time seems if not impossible, then certainly impractical. But, I guess changing how one relates to time is quite doable, and sometimes even necessary. 

After reading the article, it seems that that was what this Norwegian city (although at 320 inhabitants, it sounded more like a village to me) was thinking of doing — they were proposing relating to time differently, albeit in an extreme way. But then again, this was a village located in an extreme location, North of the Arctic Circle, where the sun only rises once a year and sets once a year. Maybe the traditional concept of time isn’t a big deal if you live half the year in perpetual darkness and the other half without the sun ever setting. 

In this village above the arctic circle, the inhabitants (or at least some of them) argued that they have no need for conventional timekeeping because they aren’t affected by the things that have traditionally influenced how we divvy up the day. Such things as getting up with the light to get the working day started or taking a siesta during the hottest part of the day. I’ve always found it fascinating how people in different parts of the world view time and how they relate to it, but having no time — that I find difficult to wrap my head around.

Time can cause problems, of course — just consider how confusing it can be to collaborate on work projects and set up meetings across time zones. I’ve seen faux pas happen because of unawareness of how a certain society relates to time. Not long ago, I read an article about how in Brazil if you arrive on time to a gathering the host is not likely to be ready for you, and you are considered rude — it’s expected that you are an hour or two late.

I feel like in these instances of culturally specific “time-tendencies”, at least you have a chance to learn and adapt. But with no time, what do you do? How do you set up meetings? How do you know when stores are open? When will people arrive at the party you’re hosting? Maybe it’s my lack of imagination, but I have a hard time seeing a society function without a commonly adopted concept of time.

As a Scandinavian, my natural mindset is something along the lines of “if you are not a few minutes early, then you are late”. Yep, I’m one of those. Naturally, friends from other cultures don’t typically subscribe to the same sense of time as I do and that sometimes makes for interesting situations. Actually, mostly these situations just involve me waiting. But, there are also some compelling patterns that become visible when people from different cultures get together.

For example, at my family’s annual holiday party the same thing tends to happen every year: our Scandinavian friends arrive right on time (unless they have let us know beforehand that they’ll be late), the local Californians are fashionably late, say, anything from 20-40 minutes and our Middle Eastern friends arrive closer to whatever end time we have set, and then just stay on. By now I’ve come to embrace this progression of the party. I can even see that there are some benefits because, with staggered arrivals you get “staggered socialization” as in, I get time to talk to everyone!

These are generalizations of course — not everyone within a specific culture approaches time in the exact same way — there are individual habits at play as well. However, learning a little about the tendencies of the country you are going to, or people you are working with, is always a good idea. And who knows, you might find yourself enjoying a different “time-mindset”. I know I’m looking forward to some lazy afternoons on my visit to Spain this summer, adopting the local tradition of taking a siesta.

By: Felicia Shermis

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