Time will tell

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There he was, in my workshop for students who are planning to study abroad for a couple of months. A typical “helper”.

I’m not sure whether it’s a typical Dutch trait, but I see it a lot, this tendency to “help”. This particular student is going to Spain and we’d just discussed some general cultural differences. I asked the students which cultural differences they would find easy and which ones they’d find difficult to deal with in their host country. “Well”, this student said, “I think I’ll be bothered with everyone being late all the time. But I think that when I explain to people that being on time and not discussing unimportant things during meetings is more efficient, things will work out just fine.”

He meant well, this guy. He was correct in realizing that people in Spain tend to regard time and the usage of it differently than Dutch people. He had also identified his worries in dealing with this, being someone who likes to be punctual. It’s just a shame he hadn’t taken the final step yet: realizing that his perspective isn’t necessarily the same as those of the Spaniards, and there’s no “helping” to be done.

Sure, people in Spain tend to not be at the designated meeting place on the time that was agreed upon. Sometimes they’re much later. But that’s not because they can’t tell time or because they don’t care that you’re waiting for them. The difference is that Dutch people see being late as an insult. In the Netherlands, being late is rude. It’s as if you don’t take the meeting seriously and aren’t that interested. When someone is late, this is the meaning people assign to it. Of course, being late can happen to everyone, but you call to let the people waiting for you know when you’re late, so you can explain. This is to make sure the other person won’t see your lateness as something bad. In Spain, however, it’s common for people to be late without phonecall or explanation. It’s essential to know that there is no insult, rudeness or disinterest involved. In Spain this is normal behavior and people will not interpret this as something negative. They were just finishing up something or talking to someone else, and that’s why they’re a bit later than originally agreed. The Spanish are much more flexible than Dutch people when it comes to time management, and they don’t think it’s that important to be on time, there is no negative connotation with being late for a personal meeting (it is, of course, different if it’s a job interview or something like that). So if a Spanish person is living in the Netherlands and is late for something, they won’t understand why you’re getting so upset about it, because they don’t attach the same meaning to the act of being late.

So really, there is no use in “helping” a Spaniard with their lateness. It is however useful to explain why being on time is important for you, if you are from a culture where punctuality is important. And it is essential to realize this makes no sense whatsoever to people in Spain, just like it makes no sense to you that people can be late and not feel bad about it. You can’t change people’s perspective on time, but you make them more understanding about the reasons why you react the way you react to things. This is where real communication starts.

For a really fun explanation of different interpretations of time, and the consequences for human behavior, check out the video “The Secret Powers of Time” (Professor Philip Zimbardo).

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