Is being ‘on time’ a matter of cultural perspective?

by Christopher Paslay

America’s future career counselors are being taught that meeting deadlines and showing up on time for appointments is a matter of cultural perspective.

Last December I received my master’s degree in multicultural education from Eastern University.  In my Urban Education class our professor gave a mini lesson on “time orientation,” and explained how being “on time” was culturally relative.

“In some cultures,” she said, “‘on time’ means arriving 15 minutes ahead of schedule.  In some cultures it means coming fifteen minutes after the scheduled time.  And still in other cultures, ‘on time’ means you arrive at exactly the time scheduled.”  She was serious and not being facetious in any way.

The first thing that struck me after hearing this was the term “Black Time,” a slang and racially insensitive phrase used by people (including some African Americans) to describe a person who shows up late for something.  One of my best friends in high school was African American and his father used to say to him jokingly, “Be home in time for church—and I mean on time, not Black Time.”

The idea that time orientation is culturally relative, outside of multicultural education programs,  is absurd.  Time, unlike many other subjective entities, is one of the few things that is objective and fixed.  For those like my Urban Education professor who don’t believe so, try arriving at a train station 15 minutes after the train is scheduled to arrive and see if you catch the train.  Or, come back to your car 15 minutes after the parking meter runs out and see if you get a ticket.  Or, show up for a job interview 15 minutes after the scheduled meeting, and see if you get the job.

Time isn’t a matter of cultural perspective.  Those who believe this are in for a lot of pain and suffering.

Yet this reality doesn’t stop progressive multicultural theorists from teaching impressionable young minds that time is culturally relative.

This summer, I’m back at Eastern taking a class in Career Counseling as a requirement for my School Counseling Certificate.  The book we are using in class is called Career Counseling: A Holistic Approach, by Vernon G. Zunker, the acknowledged guru in the field.  In chapter 9 of his book, titled “Career Counseling for Multicultural Groups,” he gives a blueprint for counseling African Americans, Asian and Pacific Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Whites, pigeon-holing each group with generalized stereotypes—all the while warning future counselors against the dangers of stereotyping.

Zunker goes on to say that different cultures have different “work values,” and different ideas of “appropriate behavior” and “appropriate dress.”  Zunker states, “Thus, it is not surprising that one cultural group may generally view a behavior as being appropriate, but members of a different culture may view that same behavior as gross or insulting.”  Interestingly, Zunker gives no examples to back up his premise; so much for teaching future counselors that they should help students and clients to speak, dress, and behave in a professional manner on a job interview or in the workplace.

Back to the notion of time orientation.  Zunker states:

Among some cultures, differences in time orientation from the dominant society can present barriers to effective career planning and other time commitments that are normally assumed in career counseling.  In traditional career counseling, the client is expected to be on time for appointments and abide by a set of time rules to complete certain counseling interventions.  In many collectivist cultures individuals are not as obsessed with being on time and maintaining a strict time commitment.  A Navajo Indian woman asked me if the next meeting would be “Indian time” or “American time.”  She explained that “Indian time” is “whenever we get together that is convenient.”  Being on time for most counselors is viewed as a positive value, and lateness is often misunderstood as a symptom of indifference or a lack of basic work skills.  In this case, I learned firsthand that time orientation has different meanings for different cultural groups.

Zunker’s theory on time orientation stops here.  There is no follow-up advice or instruction to future counselors about how to address the problem of lateness or missed deadlines by clients who have an “alternative orientation” to time.  Zunker is mute on the issue, and his silence is his own approval.  In other words, by not stating that these behaviors are faulty (they are, in his words, a “misunderstanding”) he is signaling to America’s future counselors that it would be racially intolerant or culturally insensitive to expect clients to conform to the dominant culture’s definition of being punctual and meeting deadlines.

So how do we explain the misfortunes that happen to clients whose time orientation is culturally relative?  Why is it that people with alternative perspective on time habitually miss trains and buses, get parking tickets, are hit with late fees by the IRS and credit card companies, get their utilities shut off, and never get hired for jobs?

According to social justice advocates who embrace a multicultural theory, these people are caught in the throes of institutional racism and the cultural oppression of a dominant white society.

In short, these people are all victims, and future counselors are being indoctrinated by theorists like Zunker to expect as much.

5 thoughts on “Is being ‘on time’ a matter of cultural perspective?

  1. As much as I usually agree with what you write, I am going to have to disagree here. Having traveled internationally I have seen that time is relative to the culture.
    My sister lives in the Dominican Republic, where on time can mean just about anything. You can give someone a time of 12:00 and they would show up at 1 or 2, and it would be acceptable. Parties might start at 7 and people won’t start showing up until 9. Things always start after the given time, much to the frustration of my sister and I sometimes. We call it being on Dominican time. You tell someone you’ll do something later and it could mean later in the day, in the week, or months from now. People there are just not so worried about time as we are here.
    The problem is that in the US we are so uptight about being on time that we can’t imagine it being any other way.
    It is true that we need to look at how other cultures perceive time, and help them to adapt to how things are done in America. We can’t just expect that someone who has just come from another country be able to get it right away. It takes time and patience and understanding, which we in America don’t seem to have much of anymore.

    • Hey Dan,

      I see your point, and it makes sense. But let me ask you this question: In the Dominican Republic, if a bus is scheduled to arrive in the station at 12:00 noon, and depart at 12:15 pm, and your sister gets to the station at 1:00 pm, is she going to catch the bus? Are there utility bills and credit cards in the DR? What happens to your sister’s credit score if she is late on her credit card payments, and what happens to her utilities if she is late on the payments? Does your sister have a job? When she interviewed for that job, did she get there on time? If she has a job, does she arrive at work on time? If she is habitually late, does she get reprimanded by her boss? Somehow I think time is more universal then you realize.

      Thanks for writing.

      Chris Paslay

      • Haven’t been to the Dominican Republic but having lived in Papua New Guinea, I can say that airplanes wait for people (the way buses do in a lot of other developing countries), and this is common, not the exception. Pilots are not especially punctual, and passengers sometimes board and then wait for the crew to turn up. If you get to the check in line before the plane takes off, they will wait til you get through security, etc. (You can spot the tourists because they panic and try to jump to the front of the slow moving check in line when it is 30 min before departure for an international flight, only to be told by the 100 people ahead of them that everyone is going on the same flight, and not to worry, just wait your turn). And if you do miss one, you just take the next one. Even nonrefundable non changeable fares can be changed, if you ask nicely. As for utilities, they are pre-paid because few people would get around to paying them otherwise. When you run out of power or phone credit, you go get more. Your mobile has a free “call me” option, for when you run out and need to get in touch with people. At work, people arrive after they get their kids to school, and if they run late, they stay later to make it up, or not. Leave days are flexible. A professional colleague of mine wasn’t at work one day and I was told he went bush, was not available by phone, and would be back in a few weeks. He did not have annual leave, he just decided he needed a break, took it, and returned. Another colleague at 11am was having a loud argument on the phone, slammed the receiver down and said to me, “I’m leaving, bye, see you tomorrow.” “This afternoon?” I queried. “Tomorrow,” he countered. “I have to go home and finish this argument with my wife.” No need to ask anyone or fill out a leave form. Even if a person loses their job or gets pay docked, it is not the end of the world. Even the national census was postponed a few times, and finally done a year late. I could go on…

  2. Chris,
    I like my students to be punctual because it is an important part of professional organization. However, there are many downsides to the notion of “industrial” time that you seem to readily accept as normal or healthy.

    For example, the 40-hour work-week is an industrial frame that has little to do with workers’ productivity. And many teachers work 50+ hours. When do we have time for self, family, or civic engagement?

    The school year doesn’t make a lot of sense either. I prefer the idea of the 4-day work-week because it gives people time to rest, reflect on their learning, and be involved with family and friends. Or why not cultivate flexible schedules for families with adults who work 2nd- or 3rd-shifts? Maybe our schools could serve as 24-hour community centers?

    There’s nothing automatically healthy about industrial time. When we are detached from our lives for such long or irregular periods time, we become exhausted, if not alienated. I imagine that many illnesses, drug & alcohol abuse, family dysfunction, and depression all stem from exhaustion and alienation.

    What are healthier alternatives to industrial time?

    • Hey Gamal,

      If I had my way, I’d want the Philadelphia School District to go on a “year round” calendar–where students were in school for 180 days, but the summer breaks were split up year round (6 weeks off in summer, two weeks off in the fall, three weeks in the winter, and two weeks in the spring); this is how they do it in Hawaii and some places in the south. 10 or 11 weeks straight in the summer is too much, and studies show that children (especially minority kids) lose knowledge during this time which helps to increase the achievement gap. I know I need structure to stay healthy and positive, and sometimes when I don’t have full time summer employment the long break is stressful (not many people will feel sorry for me, I know). I agree with you about the 40 hour work week–people need time to spend with their families, and working 50 or 60 hours can become a problem with priorities. I don’t recall mentioning “industrial time” in my original post above . . . the main point I was trying to make is that teaching that time is culturally realtive is really counterproductive in the 21st century–4:30 pm means 4:30 pm, and it doesn’t matter what background you come from . . . just try catching a 4:30 bus at 4:40, or attending a 8:00 am job interveiw at 9:00 am, etc. I know I teach my students to be punctual and on time, as I’d hope every teacher would (although, as I wrote in my above post, multicultural programs are teaching future counselors and teachers that being “on time” is indeed a matter of perspective).


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