Culture, Time, and Patience – by Philip Alan Sandberg

“Culture hides more than it reveals and it hides most effectively from its own participants. The real challenge is not to understand foreign cultures but to understand one’s own, to make what we take for granted stand out in perspective. This can be achieved mainly through exposing oneself to foreign ways, through the shock of contrast and difference.”

———————————Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language, 1959


Time waits for no man, Geoffrey Chaucer told us.

Neither do Americans.

Impatience seems to be a signature trait of Americans, particularly those whose ancestry lies in Chaucer’s region—Northern Europe. Our national aversion to waiting is widely recognized, even here at home. Sadly, the situation is only getting worse.

Although the causes of that impatience are more complex, the Internet era has been an important contributor. The discipline of patience has not fared well in this age of lightning-fast information access. Even wait time for material objects has decreased precipitously. Seemingly mature adults who, in their now-distant childhoods, were satisfied with regular postal delivery of their secret decoder rings or sea monkeys, today regard mail as painfully slow. Faced by those pressures, rapid shipping gave way to next-day delivery. Even that alacrity has already been trumped by same-day delivery.

Some companies have gone even further, establishing algorithms to help them have your next likely order poised at a nearby warehouse before you decide you want it. “Jeff, you were right. Our future lies with zero wait times. Customer IM2NVS is seriously considering an order for that Model OI112-Doan BL8. Warm up the delivery drone!”

At least one pizza chain now advertises no waiting for pizza. They have your order ready, not just soon, but before you walk in.

All this rapidity and anticipation of need does not foster patience. Waiting and self-denial are evidently antiquated concepts, as manifested in the popular song lyric: “I want what I want and I want it now.”

The late Edward T. Hall, a leading anthropologist and a founder of international communication studies, wrote extensively on the influence of disparate cultural approaches to time and space on cross-cultural interactions. In his excellent books, especially The Silent Language (1959), Hall identified a number of culturally-dependent, non-verbal modes, including time concept, by means of which people communicate, or fail to communicate.

Hall found that culture is essentially hidden to its members and thus neither examined nor even consciously recognized. However, it is not innate, but learned, which should give us hope. Hall suggested we can best understand our culture by getting outside of it, and learning from the resulting “shock of contrast and difference.” Without substantial experience abroad, we are unlikely to see that our time concept is a cultural construct. We will continue to be perplexed, impatient or critical at the inexplicable, even maddening ways of those from other cultures. In that case, we would simply be responding in the only way we know, the way our American culture has surreptitiously taught us.

I was lucky enough to have benefited, as a child, from the long term residence in other cultures that Hall recommended. I was born to first and second generation Minnesota Swedish Americans. Swedish was the first language there for both my father and my mother’s father. Swedes may not be impatient, but they are punctual. I experienced that time sense modeled by my parents and, much later, as a doctoral student in Stockholm, by Swedes I observed arriving at an address a bit early, but waiting until the precise invitation time to knock.

By a set of curious chances, I was taken at an early age to Latin America and immersed in a very different cultural time system. My father, as a young merchant seaman, broke his arm and was put ashore in the Panama Canal Zone for medical treatment. His favorable experiences there led him, years later, to return as a Panama Canal Company geological engineer on the Third Locks Project (larger locks for larger ships, abandoned in 1942 and only now being completed by the Panamanians).
Our move to the Canal Zone turned into eight years in Panama, Colombia, and Nicaragua, where I gradually morphed into a Latino. Well, at least a Swedish-Latino, as my mother called me.Later, I lived and worked in Sweden, England, Germany, the Netherlands, and, briefly, China, Mexico, Israel, and Czechoslovakia, bringing my years abroad to fourteen. Those years included substantial exposure to different attitudes and behaviors toward time and patience.

Oscillating between Scandinavian punctuality and more relaxed Latino time has not been problem free. At times, I have felt full of internal discontinuities, like those in the Christmas candles my Swedish cousins and I made in Stockholm, dipped repeatedly into hot wax then hung in the cool night air. Nevertheless, as the flame of those candles later illuminated the long dark Swedish winter, my intimate interlayering of culturally dissimilar responses to time has illuminated my life.

Living abroad can be a kind of amphibious existence, moving between two cultural media as different as air and water. One is the familiar, “home” cultural medium, as invisible and intangible as air. But venturing out into the surrounding foreignness takes one into a dense, unfamiliar cultural medium, palpable like water. Surviving and prospering in that new cultural medium requires a newly developed mechanism to absorb cultural “oxygen” in a newly encountered form.

Bichirs, an African fish group distinct from all other living ray-finned fish, have both gills and lungs. Some bichirs raised in moist terrestrial laboratory environments learn to crawl more effectively on land than individuals raised in water. For humans, substantial experience in a dissimilar culture can provide the culture-bridging mental equivalent of that bichir talent.

Benefits of cultural and temporal awareness are not adequately acquired by passing rapidly through other cultures (as in the movie If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium). In addition, as with language learning, cross-cultural experiences are most effective if begun early. In that respect, I was doubly lucky to have spent childhood years abroad.

In college, my life path took a detour into a very different time frame when I switched from zoology to geology. Geologists commonly think in terms of millions of years, a scale vastly greater than any cultural time concept. Waiting to see evidence of change in geologic structures requires a patience unimaginable in human life. Western US landscapes photographed nearly 100 years apart show scant differences. Could that career choice have contributed to the accepting attitude toward waiting which I acquired?

Perhaps. But, cultural context clearly had a greater influence. At our summer geological field camp in the Front Range of the Rockies, south of Colorado Springs, four of us students often worked and hung out together. Our group consisted of one Panamanian, one Cuban, one Chinese-Puerto Rican American, and me, the Swedish Latino. I think our success and enjoyment together benefited from a relaxed time concept, grounded in Latino and Chinese culture.

We did occasionally exhibit poor time management, leaving assignments until almost too late. Those lapses were more due to our youth than to any Latino time sense. The resulting deadline panic produced down-to-the-wire sessions finishing mapping projects, but we did them in style. Sometimes, instead of working in the spartan barracks or dining hall at camp, we set up in a booth on the veranda of the original, now-long-gone Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs. And, yes, there was beer involved.

On a field trip in western Colorado, the four of us set out one evening through the sulfurous vapors of Pagosa Springs to see a Mexican magic show. The few people there when we arrived viewed us with evident curiosity—we were obviously “not from around here.” However, we were speaking mainly Spanish, which seemed to gain us acceptance. After we had sat there an hour, talking, and, incidentally, waiting, I went to ask when the show would start.

“Cuando van a comenzar?” I asked the ticket taker.

“Cuando viene la gente,” she replied.

Sure enough, after nearly another hour, the people came, the place filled up, and the show started. I suppose, if I had grown up in Minnesota and knew only Swedish-American punctuality, that delay would have been unacceptable, even incomprehensible. But, no one there was greatly concerned over the delay, not even the Swedish-Latino. I was waiting as a Latino.

Punctuality, in the Swedish or American manner, doesn’t afflict Latin American cultures, nor, for that matter, a wide range of cultures in other parts of the world. Americans tend to observe such relaxed time concepts with a sense of superiority, even condescension. Perhaps it is just a trait of human nature to consider one’s own time concept as the “correct” one. I suspect most people in each different time frame, like Americans in theirs, exist in what they see as “normal time.” We assume the way we do things is surely the best way. Why else would we be doing it thus? But our approach is, after all, only one out of many. It is engendered by our culture, over which, Hall told us, we have little control, or even awareness. I cannot say if cultures other than American have similar feelings of superiority about their time concept and approach to waiting. However, I have often observed, abroad, approbation of the frenetic pace of American time.

I must have liked my Swedish experiences at home. Not long after my Colorado field camp time, I jumped at the chance to do my doctorate at the University of Stockholm. Of course, I discovered during my years there that Minnesota Swedes and Swedish Swedes are not the same thing. I also learned a great deal about punctuality, which my Latino side found difficult.

Our American time concept lies at the impatient end of the time sense spectrum, which complicates working with or even imagining other cultural time concepts toward the far end of that spectrum. In The Silent Language, Hall reported an incident involving two Afghan brothers. They lived far apart back in a time of limited travel and communication. They had agreed to meet in the market in Kabul after the fall harvest. One brother, returning to that market year after year at the agreed time, was asked (by an American) what was going on. He recounted their plan to meet, but noted neither had said which year. Can you imagine an American with no experience in other cultures seeing that as anything other than insane?

Teaching and doing geological field work in China, I encountered an amazing degree of patience on a daily basis. In that ancient culture, many times older than America or even its pre-colonial, ancestral cultures in northern Europe, the phrase “děng yī děng” (“Wait a little wait”) was a common watchword. Some of our delays were the product of governmental-bureaucratic control, or resource limitations and the huge population size. However, China is a culture with immense patience, developed during an existence of over four millennia. In contrast to the USA, which looks unswervingly and impatiently toward the future, China, though technologically skilled, has a healthy respect for its past, venerating history and ancestors. The willingness to wait exhibited by my Chinese colleagues (and by the general populace) arose from a different pace of life and state of mind (Ever watch the languid but highly focused motion of group Tai Chi exercises in a park?). Do not misconstrue this characterization as a suggestion of poor time management or lack of diligence. I have known few anywhere that work harder or with more focus than my Chinese colleagues.

I have always valued my early and lengthy immersion in Latin America. My foreign residences as an adult built on those Latino years, helping me better understand additional cultures and, thereby, my own, as suggested by Hall. All those years abroad had their share of the salutary “shock of contrast and difference” that Hall prescribed.

Full appreciation of the treasure my peripatetic parents had given to me took years. The gift justified the required patience.

Philip Alan Sandberg was raised in Latin America (Panama Canal Zone, Colombia, and Nicaragua) and Louisiana. He completed doctoral studies (in geology) in Sweden and research stays in England, Germany, the Netherlands, and China. He now lives in the Finger Lakes wine country of western NY and travels the Gulf and Atlantic coasts in search of the perfect shrimp and grits.

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