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How different cultures understand time

A guide to understanding different concepts of time.

Different cultures interpret time in different ways, and so the concept of time differs across the world. Some countries focus on the past and traditions, while some primarily concentrate on what the future holds which therefore dictates their interpretation of time.

For expats, moving from a future oriented culture, to a past oriented culture may be confusing, Having a clear understanding of the destination country’s interpretation of time can prove imperative to overcoming cultural shocks.

Here at Santa Fe Relocation, we’re taking a closer look at how different cultures understand time: from time orientation, to how countries are divided into different chronemics depending on whether they are future, present, or past-oriented.

Orientation to time

One of the most common classifications of the concept of the time is time orientation. This shows a cultural preference towards the past, present and future which dictates how time is valued in that particular country. While America is considered to be a future-orientated country due to extensive planning as well as having a young history, France is said to have a more present-oriented culture. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has a past-oriented culture as a result of the country sticking to its traditional values. When moving to a new country it’s important to be aware of the orientation of your home country, and that of your new destination country.

Pre-Industrial societies

While first-world countries are typically dominated by the concept of time, there are a number of cultures around the world which have little-to-no time orientation. The Pirahã tribe found in the Amazon rainforest is just one example of this. This tribe is considered to have ‘pre-industrial culture’ and has incredibly limited language skills, which are heavily based on whistling and humming. With no numbers, letters and colours, the Pirahã tribe has no real concept of time. As a result, the language spoken by the Pirahã tribe has no past tense. Instead, everything exists in the present.

The meaning of chronemics

The use of time and how it is perceived by different cultures is called ‘chronemics’. These views have real repercussions on social interactions and expectations. They create social norms, and affect the culture of citizens. chronemics affect things like our approach to punctuality, multi-tasking, and our understanding of how time is best used.

Different cultures are categorised as either monochronicpolychronic or variably monochronic.

  • Monochronic –  In a monochromic culture, time can be spent, saved or wasted and lateness or any form of interruption will not be tolerated.
  • Polychronic –  In a polychromic culture, a number of tasks can be done at once and people are not expected to do one thing at a time. Mexico, Pakistan, India and the Philippines are all considered to have a polychronic culture.
  • Variably monochromic  – is a group of ‘in-between’ countries that cannot be classed as monochronic or polychronic.

All these approaches and understandings of time have real effects on the culture of a place. And when moving from one place to another, these differences can become very apparent very quickly. It’s just another reason that taking the time to fully understand your destination country, and its history and culture is so important. Having a deep understanding and appreciation for the culture you’re about to enter can have a really positive impact on your relocation, and help you settle in much quicker.

If you are moving abroad and need help adapting to a new culture you can find the right support with our language and cultural training solutions, designed to help you settle in seamlessly.

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