In different cultures, people think about time differently. When I lived in Honduras, I went to a wedding. As an American, I was very worried because we were late, but my host family told me not to worry. They said, “The invitation says that the wedding starts at 5:00, but that just means that the wedding definitely will NOT start before 5:00.” In the United States, if a wedding invitation says 5:00, the wedding will begin at 5:00, so you should arrive before 5:00.
In Madagascar, a bus leaves the station when it is full. In the United States, the bus leaves at a scheduled time.
In some cultures, people think about time as a circle or a pool they can move around in. In American culture, we think of time as a line with a past, present, and future.
Here is what you need to know about American time:
- Being “on time” is very important to Americans because we think that time is limited. We have 24 hours in a day, and when the day is finished, that time is gone. Therefore, we try to be on time because we think it is more respectful. We don’t want other people to lose time. And we try to be on time because it is more efficient. We want to complete all of the day’s tasks before the end of the day.
- Americans think about time as a valuable resource. That’s why we talk about time and money in similar ways with expressions like “save time,” “spend time,” “waste time,” and “time is money.”
- It is considered rude and unprofessional to arrive late to an appointment, meeting, or job.
- If you are late to a class, you might get in trouble or not be allowed to enter the class. It can also affect your grade in some cases.
- If you are going to be more than 5 minutes late to meet a friend, you should call or send a text message to apologize and tell them when you will arrive. It is never ok to be more than 30 minutes late to meet a friend. It is disrespectful to be late every time you meet, and it can hurt your friendship.
- Americans get upset (frustrated, anxious, or angry) when they know that they will be late.
- Americans think about the future a LOT. We have planners (books for writing future plans), we make grocery lists before we go to the store, we check the weather forecast in the morning so we know what to wear and whether to take an umbrella with us, and we put money into special bank accounts for babies so they can pay for college when they are 18 years old. In fact, it is very difficult for Americans to enjoy the present moment because we are always thinking about the future.
- Americans do not usually visit or call each other after around 9:00 p.m. unless there is an emergency.
- Americans think about time in 5-minute chunks (periods/pieces). We say it takes 5, 10, or 15 minutes to go somewhere or do something. In other cultures, people think of time in 15-minute chunks, so they say it takes 15, 30, or 45 minutes. This is not a precise way to talk about time, but it’s interesting. If it takes me (an American) 8 minutes to drive to work, I say it takes 10 minutes, but someone from another culture might say it takes 15 minutes.
Why do you need to understand American time? Think about the following questions and discuss them with your classmates.
- What will happen if you are late to work every day in the United States?
- What time does your class begin? What time do you arrive? What happens if you are late?
- Why are Americans always so angry when they drive?
- An American friend invites you to a dinner party that begins at 6:30 p.m. What will happen if you arrive at 10:00 p.m.?
- Is it important to you that people show you respect? How can this information help you to show respect for your American friends?
- How is American time different from your culture’s time? How can this information help you not to be upset about those cultural differences?