July 1, 2014, by michaelgroves

Whose time are we talking about?

What is time? Or more precisely, what is your perception of time? Does time pass in a line? Or in cycles? Can you know the future? Can you know the past?

It seems like a simple question, but in fact the perception of time is part of a deep cultural imprint which we may rarely consider explicitly.  In other words, the way we see time is culturally specific- we learn it- it doesn’t just exist as truth, even if that is how it feels.

Some cultures will see time as money, a commodity to be managed and exploited, while other may see it as a tool to help build human relationships. Some will be unable to see that a 10.00 am meeting could possibly start at any other time that 10.00. Others will be unable to see why they should rush for a meeting that will happen anyway, eventually.

However, if we are working with people from other cultures, this can cause friction- for example if one member of a team regards a deadline as sacred, and another regards it as flexible.  Or if one member thinks of a period of inactivity as “wasting time” whereas another may see it as an important process of “walking around the pool”- or careful consideration before a decision is made.

Time is only one of many deep cultural imprints, and working in a multi-national, multi-lingual and multi-cultural university, these unspoken assumptions are constantly interacting. There are a number of frameworks to describe them, although these frameworks do bring risks of oversimplification and over-generalisation.

However, I do believe it is important to understand certain things we regard as “true” are in fact not universal, but specific to us and our culture. Once it is understood that there are certain “truths” that  are in fact only “ways of seeing”, then it becomes easier to deal with people from other cultures and other ways of seeing the world.

In my next post I will explore how intercultural awareness and EAP (English for Academic Purposes) interact.

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