Cultures and Time

Twenty minutes passed and my patience started running thin. The cycle of flipping through old magazines, checking my phone, and sighing loudly was growing as stale as the coffee in the office lobby I was visiting.

How long was this guy going to take? Doesn’t he know I have things to do?

clockI am always prompt. I arrive at meetings on-time and expect others to do the same. The busier I have become, the more I value timeliness. It just makes sense in this busy world. A schedule not only helps things run more smoothly, it conveys respect to others!

Although I grew up in South Africa, I consider myself British. For Brits, timeliness is valued almost as much as high tea and standing in queue. My family and I have lived in America for more than a decade— and here, especially in a corporate setting, the world runs to the tune of a ticking clock.

South Africa is an interesting blend of African and European cultures. To say “time” is viewed differently in African cultures is something of an understatement. In fact, many of the places MAF serves hold a view of time that seems, well, foreign!

“Time” is one of the surest ways to distinguish between cultures—however what lies behind these differences is much more than just the turn of the second hand. A better understanding can help us adjust to and accommodate other cultures with grace and love. At MAF, we prepare our overseas staff to do just that.

We teach that there are cold cultures and warm cultures. Simply put, cold cultures put a high value proposition on productivity, while warm cultures give more importance to relationships.

As an example, imagine you were building a house and needed to visit the hardware store to pick up extra nails. In a cold culture, you go the store, find the nails, purchase them and leave. Since productivity is valued here, the quicker you are able to complete this task the better.

In a warm culture, you go to the store, ask for help finding the nails (whether you know where the nails are or not is irrelevant), you ask the worker how his day is going, you talk to other customers about their families, ask the owner about the weather and eventually get around to purchasing the nails. Because in warm cultures you do not go to the store to buy nails, you go to participate in community and build relationships—timeliness is merely an afterthought.

Most MAF staff from the United States are in for a shock (with the possible exceptions of those from Southern states or more rural parts of the country) when they arrive in Africa, Latin America, or Indonesia and find timeliness is not held in such high regard.

As I sat in that office lobby, thumbing through magazines, checking my watch, and waiting for my meeting to begin, I reflected on the difference between timeliness and relationships and how to show grace amid them. Both are biblical principles—yet while Jesus loved Martha as much as Mary, it is interesting for me, the productive Westerner that I am, to note which sister was commended by our Lord.

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