We often never think about our perception of time, because we see it as something universal. Throughout the world, however, various cultures do not see time in the same way. Some cultures value a fast-paced life and prefer to be punctual. There are other cultures that prefer to move at their own speed and don’t mind being delayed. Time is a fluid concept that is not seen in the same way in every culture. Considering the perception of time and how it may be different allows us to have higher cultural intelligence and interact more easily with people from different cultures.
The measurement of time as it is done in the Western world is a concept that has existed only for a century. Industrialization in Western countries in the early 20th century brought a new conception of time. Standard time was not introduced until the 1880s to organize railroad traffic. So with the invention of standard time, people in industrializing countries became reliant on clocks and lived from that point gradually further under the constraint of time. Other countries that did not have the same industrial revolution adopted time but did not use it to dictate their lives. They did not place as much importance on time as industrialized countries. This attitude towards time is still prevalent today in both scenarios.
In future-orientated cultures, people are always looking to the future and are excited to be moving forward. In the United States, for example, being busy is equated to being successful so the culture in the US is future-orientated. Japan is another example of a highly-industrialized culture that emphasizes a fast-paced lifestyle and a full schedule as the markers of success. According to social psychologist Robert Levine, people tend to move faster in places with vital economies. His studies of the perception of time around the world show that the health of the economy is the most relevant factor to consider when determining if a culture is a future or past orientated. This explains why countries like the United States and Japan, who enjoy a high GDP, are future-orientated.
Past-orientated cultures are ones who did not adopt time in the early 20th century in the same way, and today they do not value punctuality as much as future-orientated cultures. Past-orientated cultures do not look to the future but view time in the scope of all of its history instead. This makes the measurement of minutes and seconds seem insignificant, so being on-time is not extremely important. Oftentimes in past-orientated cultures, things can run minutes, hours, or even days behind schedule. What is valued is the completion of the task, not the speed of completion. There are even a few cultures that do not have any concept of time, and their language only has words to describe the present, not the past or the future. Anthropologist Allen Johnson states the level of industrialization is another important factor to consider after economic health. Countries that are less industrialized are more likely to be past-orientated.
Knowing that other cultures view time differently is important when trying to diversify your business. Differing importance placed on the past or the future influences peoples’ thinking and what is important to them. Considering these factors can be helpful when interacting with someone who is from a different culture because their attitudes towards time could affect you in a way you would not expect. Although their perception of time does not affect their ability to contribute to you, it may become an obstacle if you are unaware of it. This is why having cultural intelligence is a virtue in the business world.