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How Different Cultures Understand Time

We left our guesthouse just after 7 am because our host had told us that the high mountain road was under construction. There was only one way in, and there would only be a couple moments when we could get through. We had to get there before 8 am sharp!or we would have to wait until after noon. Little did I know that this would be a  great opportunity to learn how different cultures understand time. We were cutting it close, but I felt like we were going to make the deadline.

We kept up the pace, until suddenly we rounded the corner to see a long line of parked vehicles in front of us. My heart sank.

We stopped for what would turn out to be an unexpected lesson.

We watched a group of road workers do what road workers do all over the world.

Stand around in groups.

I had spent the last few days up in the Haitian mountains at the town of Duchity. I had brought a couple of other Canadians who wanted to learn about development. We spent our time in the community and in the village. Our local partners had revealed some new planting techniques as well as ways to produce natural local compost. We met local people who had doubled, or quadrupled their crops – in some cases they were now producing more than 8 times the food.

Back on the road we were still stopped.

Waiting while nothing seemed to happen

Lagrande the agronomist stepped out to find out a bit more information, we waited. I got out to stretch my legs. We waited. I talked to the construction workers, pulled out my camera and snapped a few pictures. We waited.

Lagrande came back and told us it was “only a short while”. I just about got back in the vehicle, but then I realized I had a great opportunity to really understand how different cultures understand time.

I wondered if I could learn how to tell time Haitian style!

We are on Haiti Time

I am sure you have heard the term before.  We are on “Haitian time!” or maybe you have heard it as “We are on African – Mexican – Native – Guatemalan – Fijian – or Island – Time”.

Most of the time when I hear it, it comes from an outsider as a way of pointing out just how backward the local community is. I hear it mostly as a warning.

“They are always late!”

This warning and frustration misses the point.

Much of the world actually does operate on a different way of seeing time. It is called future and past orientation:

  1. Do you see time as abundant or limited?

  2. Is there always more time, or never enough?

  3. Is time a limited commodity like money, or is it a flooding river?

If you truly want to understand how different cultures understand time, you have to first unlearn the belief that they do not care about time.  Everyone cares about time, just in different ways.

Back to the roadblock in Haiti. After Lagrande told me that the road would open shortly, I asked him the right question. A very simple question, one I use ALL THE TIME and you should to if you want to begin understanding another culture like a local.

What does it mean here?

I told Lagrande that in Canada if someone says that they road will be opened “shortly”, that the word “shortly” usually means about 5 minutes, almost certainly less than 10.

I then asked him, “What does a ‘short while’ mean in Haiti?

His reply? “Shortly means about 20 minutes.

He was absolutely right, 20 minutes later, we started moving again.

Think about how I may have felt if I had not asked the right question. After about 5 minutes of waiting, my version of shortly would have been used up and I may have started wondering if Lagrande knew what he was talking about. I may have started to sound like one of those know-it-all expats who have been in the community for a few months and make bold pronouncements about the local people – A lot frustrated and a little pathetic.

Don’t just ask questions, ask the right questions

Most people realize that the key to understanding a new culture is to be bold and ask questions, that is true, but let me add that you need to ask the right questions. Here is a simple technique that I use all the time.

  1. Be Curious about something

  2. Tell what it would mean at home

  3. Ask what it means locally

  4. Assume you have a tiny bit more of the story and repeat step 1!

Do this and you will learn a lot more than just how different cultures understand time.

What helps you learn more about other cultures?

Mark Crocker

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