Part I: “Why are they always so late?!” Cultural Concepts of Time


One of the constraints that has been placed on the whole of humanity and creation is the concept of time.  Despite the fact that time itself is unchanging, constant, and ever present, the meaning we assign to it, the way it is used, and the importance placed on it varies widely from culture to culture.  Not realizing that others view time in an entirely different way than we do can create a great deal of misunderstandings, hard feelings, and hostility.  

Americans and the Western world in general have a future oriented focus on time.  Time is based around the clock: we are always looking ahead, marking the exact time until the present task is finished so we can hurry to the next item on the schedule.  We are constantly thinking about the future, planning for it in the present, and arranging our lives with future events in mind. 

Others have a more present focused sense of time.  Importance is placed on the current moment; time is based around the event.  Time duration is based on how long it takes to finish a task, unlike the converse in Western time: a time duration is set and the task must be completed during that space no matter what.  Schedules are more general, and everyone expects that when you give a time, you don’t mean exactly that – you mean around that, give or take even an hour or two.  No one really minds if you come in after the given time as they understand that you obviously were completing something else. 

Levine & Wollf (1985) undertook a study that looked at the clocks in major cities around the world to measure their accuracy.  They found that Japanese clocks came in first, with their clocks being the most accurate, and Indonesian clocks came in last, with their clocks being the least accurate (I’m not sure what cities were included in the search though, as the article doesn’t list them).  As the authors note, when discussing science or technology or even fashion, we often hear that the Japanese are “ahead” and that we need to “catch up.”  Our highly valued Western devotion to the clock suffers when we realize that someone else is actually ahead of us in time! 

An Asian friend of mine worked as a government employee back in his country, and told me that he was required to be at work at least an hour before his boss to make sure everything was unlocked, coffee ready, documents prepared, and so on.  Even if there was nothing to do, he was required to be there earlier due to his lower status.  Yet, his boss was certainly never considered to be ‘late;’ he always came in at the same time every day, right on schedule.  Interestingly, it seems that some cultures tie one’s adherence to the clock to social status.  We also find a similiar phenomenon at work here in the US: I’m sure many of us have heard stories of celebrities being hours late to photo shoots, events, or concerts.  For Westerners, it’s as if the more privileged and important you are, the less you are required to respect the time of those around us (the rest of us still aren’t happy about it though).  Yet perhaps for those in countries like that of my Asian friend, being ‘late’ is an acceptable privilege afforded to those in higher social and power ranking, and has been carefully incorporated into the standard way of operating.  Everyone there knows their place in the caste system of time. 

Of course, the examples I have given thus far are with cultures that practice strict adherence to the clock – and we can see that there is a great amount of variation even within one category! When it comes to cultures that regard time as being subject to the present, to the completion of current tasks, trying to figure out exactly when something will be done in the future can be an impossible task.  I’ve often heard Westerners living in the Middle East complain about the term “bukhura” – meaning tomorrow.  This is the standard response given whenever someone wants to know when something will be done – tomorrow will take care of itself.  For Arabs, the future is an abstract concept, and exact times will be determined when the unreachable ‘tomorrow’ moves into the grasp of ‘today’ and the task becomes concrete and measurable. 

Fortunately, all is not lost in the confusing mire of cultural perceptions of time.  Levine (1997) offers us eight lessons that we should learn and try to incorporate into our interactions with those from cultures with different concepts of time.  He points out that no one concept of time is more correct than another; each has its drawbacks and each has something positive to learn from as well.  Yet, the importance of learning about other concepts of time is crucial, as Levine astutely states:

“In many instances, temporal illiteracy leads to situations that are simply awkward and embarrassing; in other cases, however, the lack of knowledge can be socially disabling.  The latter is often the result when non-clock-time people must achieve by the standards of fast-paced cultures.  Entire subpopulations with otherwise economically vital communities are marginalized by their inability to master the clock-governed pace of the mainstream culture.  These temporally disabled subgroups are particularly common in societies with large multiethnic, multicultural populations, especially those undergoing rapid social change” (Levine, 1997). 

Indeed, “temporal illiteracy” as he terms it is not just something that can cause occasional annoyance or misunderstanding, but can push entire subcultures or even countries down in the economic or power system if their concept of time does not match the majority that happens to be in power.  Thus, the importance of incorporating his suggested lessons becomes even more important for not only improved communication with those around us, but for survival! 

In the following series, I will expand on his proposed lessons, and am looking forward to hearing any experiences you might have had with each of these! 


Levine, R.  A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently. HarperCollins, New York, 1997.

Levine, R., & Wolff, E. (1985). Social time: The heartbeat of culture.  Psychology Today, 19 (3), 28-35.


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