Sunday, 18 January 2009

Cultural time

To be sure, time does not really exist, except in our minds. It is one of the tools that help us organise our lives on this planet. And, like most of the tools that human beings employ in order to not get lost, the concept of tîme has been turned into a lucrative business by some ... watchmakers, for instance.

We all know that the concept of time is understood differently around the globe. I used to believe that people in warmer climates do not know what time is. Swiss time, I mean. Now imagine my surprise when one day in Santa Cruz do Sul, where I was teaching, I found the school door locked at three minutes past twelve. Okay, I did know that the school was officially closed from twelve to one but ... I simply assumed that Brazilans would not adhere to my rigid notion of time. I asked Ricardo, the school owner and always a valuable source when I needed Brazilian things explained: Well, he said, Brazilians might not be on time when coming to school but they are always on time when leaving.

Tracy Novinger, in her recommendable Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide (University of Texas Press, Austin 2001), demonstrates how to deal with cultural time - by taking things lightly, and with a smile, that is. Here's one of her wonderful examples:

"In the end, one should maintain a sense of cultural relativity, as well as a sense of humor. As one story goes, an Arab discussing cultural differences with a Mexican friend asked about the meaning of the expression mañana. On hearing the explanation, he nodded in understanding and replied, 'That is like the Arab bukara, but bukara does not have the same sense of urgency.'"

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