Time – Text for reading comprehension
How do you see time?
Imagine the following situation. You feel exhausted. You are self-employed. You run your own metalworking business and you have an order from your main customer which needs to go out in 12 hours’ time. You have already been working on the order 24 hours non-stop. You didn’t go to bed last night, and you feel numb through lack of sleep.
At that moment, a friend shows up at your workshop. You have promised to organise a barbecue for this friend and his work colleagues in return for a donation for a charity that you are involved in, and you have invited him to call round whenever it suits him to discuss the details.
What do you do? Do you apologise to your friend, explain the situation and arrange another time for him to come back when you are not so under pressure? Or do you invite him in, make a cup of coffee and discuss the arrangements for the barbecue?
The way you answer that question, is likely to depend, at least in part, on how you and your culture see time.
For some people and cultures, the day is structured in accordance with the hours on the clock. You have a meeting at 9:00, which means you need to be in the office by 8:00 to check your emails and run through your presentation one last time. You need to be out of the office by 4:30 to pick up your daughter to take her to her dance class. That leaves you an hour to swing by the gym before your daughter needs picking up again and feeding. If you shower at home, you have just enough time for your short exercise routine. This is a typical scenario in what anthropologist, Edward Hall, calls monochronic cultures. Punctuality is seen as a virtue and something to be aspired to – even as a sign of respect. This can also be seen as a linear view of time as people tend to finish one task before starting the next.
If you live in a polychronic culture, you may do things differently. You are likely to see time as being more fluid, or flexible. It’s 8:55 and you have a meeting at 9:00? Finish your coffee first. Nobody will arrive until 9:15 anyway. You’ve received an agenda for the meeting, which you’ve glanced at, but you have a far more urgent topic which you need to discuss with your colleagues, so the agenda can wait. During the meeting, your colleague Barbara takes a call while you are speaking and leaves the room. No worries. You can fill her in later.
Does this sound stressful and disorganised to you or a welcome relief to being a slave to the clock? On the one hand, it can be stressful preparing a presentation to finish on the dot rather than continuing for another fifteen minutes to give the topic the time it deserves. On the other hand, if everyone does what is expected of them when they are supposed to do it, it helps you keep your life in order.
Does being unpunctual show a lack of respect? That can also be flipped on its head. Polychronic cultures tend to value relationships more highly than structure. It’s more important to give ten minutes of your time to really listen to the person you are talking to, than to arrive at 9:59 for a 10:00 am appointment.
These concepts of monochronic and polychronic can help us understand the way we and others live and work. It is, though, important to realise that all these things are relative. Germany, for example, is seen as a typical monochronic country, but some people are more monochronic than others, and despite the stereotype, I can say from first-hand experience that the trains don’t always run-on time.
Back to our highly pressured self-employed metalworker. In this scenario, I was the person who showed up to discuss the barbecue. I had no idea of the strain that my friend Carlos was under. True to form, he invited me in, and we spent an hour chewing the fat. When I later discovered the inopportune timing of my visit, I was hugely embarrassed. “Carlos,” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”. “Well, you’re my friend,” came the reply, “I’ll always find time for you.”
Carlos is from Argentina, a typical polychronic culture, and he lives in Germany. It strikes me that he was caught between the monochronic expectation to deliver the order on time, and a polychronic view of the importance of making time for friends.
I must now out myself as being extremely monochronic, so I try to keep this story in mind whenever I’m impatiently waiting for a friend or a colleague who is a few minutes late. It doesn’t stop me, though, from angrily glancing at my watch or maybe trying to fill the precious minutes I’m losing with something constructive.