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A guide to understanding different concepts of time to promote cultural integration

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 orientated culture, to a past orientated culture may be confusing, so, having a clear understanding of their 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-orientated, present-orientated or past-orientated.

Orientation to time

One of the most common classification 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-orientated culture as a result of the country sticking to its traditional values.

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 is 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’. Different cultures may fit into different parts of the study and are categorised as 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.


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. Get in touch today.

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