Friday, February 1, 2008

On Cultural Time

© Tracy Novinger 2008

American culture teaches its members to “save time”... In Mexico one “spends” time…

When Americans and Mexicans communicate, they often seem to enter a time warp where words confuse and behavior confounds. There is a reason for this. Every culture strictly mandates the behavior of each and every one of its members. And since the different behavior required by different cultures has communicative meaning, when Mexicans and Americans interact, it is not surprising that misunderstanding can occur.

Because people in different cultures are conditioned to behave and even think differently, their respective perceptions are quite different. When it comes to time, different measures and uses prevail and can cause communication problems between Mexicans and Americans. Although Mexicans react negatively to some time traits of American culture, the difference in the two cultures’ use of time bothers North Americans more than it does Mexicans. Indeed, Americans often view Mexico's informal time system as a symptom of inefficiency when, rather, it evidences a different philosophy of life.

American culture teaches its members to “save time” and not to “waste time;” time is viewed as a precious, quantitative commodity. Americans have all heard the maxim that “time is money.” In the United States, the clock reigns supreme. In contrast, in Mexico one “spends” time; time correlates to activity. Mexicans live at a slower pace and in the moment. They see time in life as opportunity, not money. To live for time is to live for nothing.

In Mexico, people regularly engage in many activities simultaneously. In the monochronic culture of the United States, people usually prefer to focus on one activity at a time when they interact and communicate (although, of course, they can multitask). Let’s assume that George Turner has an appointment at an office in Mexico. As he sits in front of Sr. Perez’ desk and they converse, the secretary enters and asks a question for someone waiting for an answer, Sr. Perez asks his son to go pick up his car, then tells his wife who is hovering on the side that he will meet her at 2:00 PM, all while the accountant has him sign a check, the phone rings and he intersperses talk with George. All the conversations and activities drive George crazy and he feels ignored. It helps one cope with such multiple activities if one understands that in polychronic Mexico they are not unusual, nor are they necessarily impolite.

Another important characteristic of polychronic cultures is that personal relationships are paramount and such relationships take time to establish. Since it is important in Mexico to take time to establish personal relationships before trying to transact business, this may mean making four times as many calls on a person as one might make in the United States to reach one’s objective. Contrary to North American sales training where one is told to keep asking for the order, in Mexico it is important to bide one’s time and be patient.

The United States' approach to time makes North Americans appear to Mexicans to be too blunt (too quick to get to the point) and to be discourteous in the lack of time spent on personal courtesies. Indeed, Mexicans’ solicitous concern for a person’s comfort and well-being is genuine and, even if it were only ritual, is very pleasant. But since American culture teaches a person not to waste time, when an American offers a brief greeting as the preamble to a conversation, the American is in part motivated by wanting to save the other’s precious time. Unfortunately, this behavior that was intended to be considerate is frequently perceived by a Mexican as cold or impolite.

The conventions of “punctuality" also differ in the two countries. Arriving late for social invitations in Mexico’s time culture is polite—it is arriving on time that is a breach of etiquette. By arriving at the scheduled hour, one may embarrass the hosts, who may not be ready. For a dinner invitation at 8:00 p.m., time conventions dictate that one should not arrive before 8:30 or 9:00. However, if the dinner is formal, one Mexican etiquette book recommends that one should “not be more than thirty minutes late.” Given Mexican customs, Americans should not be surprised when Mexican friends arrive at a time that is late by U.S. standards. One social group that includes Mexicans and Americans has developed its own conventions. Because this group is so tuned in to cultural differences, they often joke among themselves, and when someone mentions the time for an event another will call out: "¿Hora mexicana o hora norteamericana?" (Mexican time or North American time?).

Time in the work day is also scheduled differently in the U.S. and Mexico. Mexicans usually take time for their families in the morning and start work later than in the United States, usually around 9:00 a.m. They also take long lunches for their main meal, and then typically have a longer workday than Americans, ending around 8:00 p.m. It is not uncommon to meet someone at their office at 7:00 PM, often referred to as the “afternoon”—“por la tardecita.” Government officials keep even later schedules.

As to scheduling meetings, many U.S. chairmen schedule meetings in the morning when people are supposed to be “fresh,” specify the starting and ending time, and they distribute the agenda in advance. The chairman then keeps an eye on the clock and the agenda to keep the meeting strictly on schedule. This is diametrically opposed to Mexican protocol. Mexicans tend to schedule meetings later in the day. If discussions are not finished, they consider it senseless to terminate a meeting because time as abstractly measured by the clock is up. In addition, they usually do not limit discussions only to certain topics. With so many differences in the perception of time, it is a wonder that Americans and Mexicans communicate as well as they do.

In general, in Mexico more time is spent maintaining personal relationships than in the United States. Activities are usually scheduled later in the day, and nothing that is productive or enjoyable is worth cutting short in order to do something else, whether ending a party or a meeting. It is customary to arrive late for social encounters and invitations do not specify ending times. Nor does logic necessarily apply to time. A maid may leave the day before payday just because she felt like it. Absenteeism after a weekend is so common that people refer to "St. Monday." But because we now live in a global world, many of today’s new generation of Mexicans place greater value on managing time by the clock than in the informal manner that has prevailed in Mexico in the past.

When Americans and Mexicans interact, it is important to bear in mind that the difference in the perception of time is just that: different. A culture is not defective because it is different. 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."

© Tracy Novinger 2008

See “Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide” by Tracy Novinger, available through or Focuses on U.S.-Mexico communication issues.

This article published in the February 2008 issue of Another Day in Paradise magazine (


Ernest S. said...

This was a nice informative article. -Ernest

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