UK: WHEN TIME IS LOST IN THE TRANSLATION. - Depending on where you are, time can either be money, a near-religion or something to ignore. In the first of two articles, Richard D Lewis explores the different cultural attitudes to time.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Depending on where you are, time can either be money, a near-religion or something to ignore. In the first of two articles, Richard D Lewis explores the different cultural attitudes to time.

Time is thought to be universal and non-negotiable. While for the most part true, the world views held by different cultures mean that time can be subject to strikingly different notions. Eastern and western cultures view time in almost opposite ways. Even within these groupings, attitudes can vary widely. In the West, for example, two adjacent countries - the US and Mexico - use time in such opposite ways that it is often the cause of friction between them. Similarly, in Europe, the Swiss attitude to time bears little relation to that of neighbouring Italy.

As a whole, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Dutch and Scandinavian peoples are essentially 'linear-active' and time-dominated. They prefer to do one thing at a time, concentrate on it and complete it within a scheduled timescale. It is in this way, they reason, that you get more things done - and done efficiently. The prevailing Protestant work ethic also dictates that the harder you work - or, rather, the more hours you work - the more successful you will be.

For an American, time is truly money - as anyone who has had dealings with an American doctor, dentist or lawyer knows. In a profit-oriented society, time is a precious commodity. It flows fast, and to benefit from its passing, you have to move fast with it. Americans, like their pioneering forebears, are a people of action. Past time is dead time, but the present you can seize, parcel and package and make it work for you in the future.

Time similarly assumes a near-religious importance in both Germany and Switzerland. Germans see the compartmentalisation of programmes, schedules, procedures and production as the surest route to efficiency. The Swiss, perhaps even more time-and regulation-dominated, have made precision a national symbol - whether in their watch industry, their optical instruments, their pharmaceuticals or their banking. Planes, buses and trains all leave on the dot. Accordingly, everything can be calculated exactly. If nothing else, Switzerland is a very predictable society.

Southern Europeans, on the contrary, are 'multi-active', rather than linear active; the more things that they can handle at the same time, the better. Multi-active peoples are not interested in schedules or punctuality. They may pretend to observe them, especially if a linear-active partner insists, but they consider their own sense of time to take precedence over man-made appointments. In their order of things, priority is given to the relative significance - and enjoyment - of each meeting rather than to the sequence of events in a diary. Hence, Spaniards, Italians and Arabs will ignore the passing of time if it means that conversations are left unfinished. For them, completing a 'human transaction' is the best way to invest their time. The actual meeting is what counts; the exact time it takes place is very much a secondary consideration.

The Spaniards, famous for their manana attitude, are commonly seen as the least time-conscious of all Europeans. The truth, rather, is that the Spaniard is conscious of a second time horizon beyond that of the immediate deadline. When a German and a Spaniard agree a delivery date, for example, the German takes the date at face value and believes that both sides see eye to eye. In reality, the Spaniard regards the date as flexible because of the benign and long-standing relationship with his partner. The same principle applies to meetings. In Spain it is better not to turn up strictly on time; punctuality simply messes up schedules.

In countries with linear-active cultures, then, time is clock-related, calendar-related, segmented in an abstract manner for convenience, measurement and disposal. In multi-active cultures like the Latin and Arab spheres, time is related to personality and event, a subjective commodity which can be manipulated, moulded, stretched or even dispensed with, irrespective of what the clock says. 'I have to rush', says the American, 'my time is up.' The Spaniard, Italian or Arab, scornful of this submission to schedule, would only use such an expression if he were about to die. If you can't master your own use of time, what else can you master?

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