Punctuality and Culture

Reading up on, and living with, cultural differences has really solidified for me something I have long suspected but now am sure of.

That is, we spiritualize American standards in certain areas to almost a fetish, and then we export it, attempting to change a culture without any understanding of the context and related pieces.It’s entirely possible this goes in the other direction as well, if not evangelically, at least in a critical spirit and the idea that Americans should be more like …. ‘us’, whoever ‘us’ is, and insert pet cultural standard.

I can’t tell you how many entire sermons I have heard in America on the sin of being late, on the godliness of being punctual. I struggle with punctuality and so I chafe at these sermons for personal reasons stemming from self-interest. I recognize that as an American living in America it would behove me to have some respect for the standards of my culture. I do. You know there’s a but coming, don’t you?

It’s not one of the 10 commandments, so I wish we wouldn’t act like it is. This is where somebody old school tells me there is a commandment against stealing and being late is stealing other people’s time.
I think that’s stretching it unless you or I are being paid by the hour for the time I am there at whatever event this is.

Like it or not, this a cultural standard, a cultural practice, it’s not more or less godly to live in and keep to a time keeping culture vs a culture which has a more flexible approach to time.

Before we got here, I know about the differences in attitudes toward time. But now that we’re living here I don’t just know it, it makes sense to me. Time is not as much in one’s own control here as it is in America. You can’t plan for the rain, the torrential rain that eliminates a third of your public transportation options immediately, and increases demand for the additional conveyances, floods roads in minutes so you can’t pass. You can’t plan for the kinds of sudden traffic snarls that can burst our of nowhere in seconds. In a society so much more focused on relationships then almost anything else, you can’t just always wave off your neighbor or co-worker or the person at the bank who want to stop and ask you some questions and talk to you. Work might be an acceptable reason, especially if they know your boss is a westerner. But it’s generally slightly or ever so much more important to be available for your family, your closest friends, your neighbors than it is to be on time for a meeting at a restaurant or for church.

You can’t control how many stops the jeepney is going to make before yours- they stop when passengers ask to get on or off. Same with the trikes.
Traffic, weather, road conditions, power or water outages, friends, relationships- all these things make punctuality something of a lottery. If outsiders come in and emphasize on the dot punctuality without understanding the reasons why it’s less important in that culture, then something is liable to lost in the relationship side of the culture. Likewise, if outsiders came and got Americans to be more relaxed about punctuality, we’d lose something of the efficiency and productivity we value. In either case it might be worth the trade-off, but it would be better for the people in the culture to make the trades with the full understanding, at least as full as possible, about what it is they are trading.

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  1. HeatherHH
    Posted March 11, 2018 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I think our culture’s emphasis on running by the clock is culture. But an element of being punctual transcends culture. I think of the verse about letting your yes be yes and your no be no. If I say that I will be somewhere at 2, then barring extraordinary circumstances, I’m being unfaithful to my word if I show up at 2:20.

    If I lived in a culture that wasn’t as time driven and was going to go by that, I’d feel bound to say that I’d be over in the afternoon or sometime after 3 or around 3 or whatever rather than giving a time I was likely to not keep. And if hosting a shower or party in some countries where people (including the host) routinely show up over an hour late, I’d feel bound to say, “People are welcome to begin arriving at 6 to visit, but the activities will begin at 7, and then keep that.

    • Headmistress
      Posted March 11, 2018 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

      I think the idea that saying you’ll be there at 3 means 3 on the dot or you are violating your word is also cultural. That is what it means in clock driven societies, but it’s not what it means outside of them.

      IT’s not violating your word when you live in a culture where everybody understands that ‘at 3’ means ‘barring all the other stuff we know can come up.’ Every culture has its unspoken contexts that are so much a part of the fabric of life that you don’t even notice them. Nobody would accuse you of violating your word if you didn’t make it at 3 because of a medical emergency, or because you got a phone call from your best friend and she was suicidal. Everybody in our culture understands emergencies like that are unspoken but exceptions. In fact, they seem ‘obvious’ to us.

      But to people in other cultures that are event and relationship driven rather than clock driven, *their* exceptions seem every bit as obvious to them as ours do to us. When you live in a culture where everybody knows the torrential rains can start without warning and leave you unable to move, you don’t have to hedge your time- it’s written into shared understanding and expectation. It’s just as much of the context as ‘barring a medical emergency’ is in ours. When you live in a culture that isn’t clock driven but is relationship driven, everybody shares the context that 2 is the same as ‘around 2 or whenever I’m free’ just the same way that here we all understand ‘how are you?’ does not mean, “Please give me an elaborate statement of your medical, emotional and economic wellbeing.”

  2. Linda lawhorn
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    I understand what you mean about a more flexible approach to time if someone is meeting friends, dinner, shopping. But how doess flexible approach affect work? Would that person stay later if arrived later? How do you do church? You can have longer meeting times, more singing, but would that mean more sermons? Longer sermons?

    • Headmistress
      Posted March 12, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      Good questions. And the lecture series notes that all of this shifts a bit for work things as societies become more global.
      I can only speak for how I’ve seen church handled where we attend- the starting time doesn’t shift much- we start pretty much on time, with maybe a five minute window sometimes. It ends about the same time regardless, too. The difference is, there is no public shaming of people who are late, no sermons on punctuality, no comment at all on lateness. Nobody stares with pursed lips at people who come late. And we start with barely 10% of the pews filled and by about halfway through we are full, and then there’s an usher who starts finding places for more late comers to squeeze in. People routinely come to services with wet, obviously just washed hair and nobody comments or stares.

      Bible studies are more lax. We have one Thursday at 5:30 a.m. at our house, and it has to end on time because the HM has to be at work (and sometimes I do, too). If it starts on time (and it never does) we have an hour study. If it starts later, we only study until we have to quit, which is sometimes a ten minute study. But one of the guys who comes comes on a bicycle with no lights, from several miles away, so he can’t leave until it gets light out. Two of the others come by bicycle a considerable distance as well, and they don’t seem to mind biking all this way only to have to leave 15 minutes later.

      • Headmistress
        Posted March 12, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        Oh- I don’t really know much about work issues and time. However, we did have to let one helper we had go because she would not show up on time, and would not show up predictably- sometimes she came at 8, sometimes 9:30. She had no compunction at all about making me late for work. My other helper will at least text me if she is delayed longer than 30 minutes at the market.

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