How Different Cultures Understand Time

Even after my fifth month living in Southeast Asia, I still never dared to drive. Many travellers will agree that for someone spoiled by driving on the well-ordered European roads, Asian traffic is chaotic, to say the least. When I moved to Indonesia, I made a resolution: no more taxis. I had to learn to ride a motorbike, Bali-style.

No one could teach me to drive like a local, better than a local. So I booked a lesson with a driving school and, on the scheduled day, met my instructor. Kadek was a bronze-skinned islander and a kind, laid-back soul.

What is the first thing you’d teach a foreigner taking a driving lesson in Indonesia? If your answer is something like left-hand traffic or right of way, you’d be wrong.

The first thing Kadek taught me was:


“In Bali, we are Hindu. We drive the way we live, and we live the way we believe.”

While I was trying to connect the dots between motorbikes and Hinduism, he went on:

“All the haste and troubles you see on the roads come from foreigners bringing their driving habits. The Balinese never rush. There’s no reason to speed up if you’re already moving. And we believe in Karma. If you care about others being safe, you are safe”

In this article, I won’t be educating you on the traffic rules in Southeast Asia.

Instead, I’ll tell you:

  • How culture determines people’s perception of time and space.
  • The different concepts of time across cultures.
  • Why understanding these differences is crucial in cross-cultural communication.

Philosophy of Time

First, let’s look back into history. Every ethnic group used mythology, religion and philosophy to make sense of the world around them, and humankind’s position in it.

People ascribed Wiccan gods for physical phenomena like water, fire, harvest and the sun. They philosophised on abstract notions such as life and death, good and evil, and of course, time. Today, we notice how different these concepts are across countries.

Different parts of the world have had their own dominant religious and philosophical thoughts throughout history. These translated into what we call ‘mentality’ and ‘culture’.

In his cultural framework, Lewis (1996) distinguished three basic types of time perception across cultures – Linear, Cyclical and Procedural time.

Linear Time

Linear time is undisputed in the West (e.g. in Europe, Britain, North America and Australia). This philosophy has been shaped by Christianity, according to which God created the world for humans to live, make history, and end on the day of judgement. Everything in life follows this temporal trajectory, having a beginning and an end.

Western cultures perceive time as an uninterrupted arrow, divided into past, present and future. The past is gone forever, the present is under control, and the future can be planned for (or predicted).

In that respect, the Anglo-Saxon world originated the idea of “progress”. A person is responsible for a better future. Therefore, it’s common to schedule, plan, set goals and tailor your current activities accordingly.


“Let me check my agenda”.

A friend of mine, a lady from an Eastern country started seeing a Dutchman.

One day she called me and she was furious. She complained that she had never met anyone so rude and disrespectful. Astounded, my mind ran through all possible scenarios, looking for a reason for such a fall-out. She explained: “When I asked him if we could meet on Tuesday, he responded: ‘Let me check my agenda’!”

Cyclical Time

Other civilisations, including Ancient Greeks, Mayans, Incans, and until today, Hinduists and Buddhists, contemplated the world differently. They observed the circularity of nature – alternation of day and night, seasons, moon phases, birth and death. Since nothing in the world appears out of nowhere, there can’t be an ultimate beginning and end. Even after death comes reincarnation and rebirth. Therefore, a circle symbolises never-ending ‘time’.


Time in India

“Never leave that till tomorrow what you can do today” – the saying, which most westerners learn from the young age, probably won’t make that much sense in India.

In the Hindi language, both English words “yesterday” and “tomorrow” translate with the same word “kal”.

This little word baffles language learners, and accurately reflects the Indian philosophy of revolving time.

Procedural Time

This is the most abstract form within this framework. If we can imagine Linear time as an infinite arrow, and cyclical time as a circle, procedural time doesn’t have a symbol. It’s not measurable, neither in hours nor in cycles.

Procedural time is relational. It’s comprised of actual human activities and physical events. In the same vein, when you don’t perform any trackable action, time doesn’t exist, and therefore, can’t be “wasted”.

It is particularly distinct in societies that have preserved ancestral ways of living, such as Aboriginal Australian, Torres Strait Islander and some African settlements.


Aboriginal Australia.

“The changes of ageing are measured against the bodies of friends and relatives before they are experienced in personal memory. The yams will be ripe after the rains have stopped and before the creek beds are dry. People have a capacity to measure one event by another and to take one thing as a sign of another.

Pragmatically, this enables them to be ready for particular events – to move where food supply is, to plan for seasonal abundance or to anticipate the arrival of the kingfish by making ready the fish spears. It allows the scheduling of events by ordering them in possible sequences and it allows communication about the relative duration of events and placing of people and events in time and space.” (Morphy, 1999)

Hybrid Types

Naturally, not all cultures fit into one specific category. For instance, the majority of Islamic societies blend Linear and Cyclical time. According to Islamic thought, human history rejuvenates in cycles, with the appearance of prophets. However, each cycle moves ahead towards the day of judgement, similar to Linear philosophy.

Managing Time: Polychronic/ Monochronic Cultures

In 1983, E. Hall introduced a framework of Monochronic vs Polychronic cultures, which refers to the ways in which people organise their time.

Monochrony is consistent with linear time perception. Time has metrics and is almost physical: it can be distributed, saved, given and wasted. Monochronic cultures tend to follow schedules, and perform one activity at a time.

All arrangements have to be done timely and efficiently. For example, people gather at a meeting right on time. Coming much earlier isn’t common, and showing up late is simply rude.

Stereotypical Swiss precision, German punctuality and North American result-orientation are some examples.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Polychronic cultures, which focus on the quality of time rather than on its quantity. Quality means relationships, communication and the results of activities (often multiple at once).

Precise planning isn’t common, ‘delays’ are expected. Arriving ‘late’ is the norm, whereas turning up  too ‘early’ is considered rude.


When Monochronic and Polychronic cultures met at a bar.

It was a lovely sunny afternoon in Dominican Republic. I sat at a beachfront bar sipping my juice. The waitress waltzed around the bar, took orders, chatted with customers, giggled with the barman, and whistled to the reggae tunes they played there.

At the table next to me sat a family from the USA. They ordered their drinks and settled in to their idyllic surroundings. Until, after 20 min of waiting the group started to lose patience.

30 minutes passed and the voices of complaints got louder. The waitress kept flying back and forth, singing and performing all other sorts of non-essential movements.

40 minutes, and their faces flush, with either the sun or the anger.

The tension had escalated to an almost unbearable point, when she finally emerged with a tray of long anticipated drinks.

What’s the relevance?

Differences in time perception is one of the fundamentals of cultures. Understanding them will help you drastically improve your cross-cultural competency and communications.


Etiquette is the most obvious implication of time perception.

Say you’re invited for a 7pm dinner. Will you arrive at 7:00 sharp?

In Japan, guests will most likely come 20 minutes earlier to demonstrate their respect to the host. On the other hand, in some Latin countries, the time lag between the stated time and the event actually beginning may exceed 30 minutes. And in India it can reach an incredible 2 hours!


When selling internationally, a marketing message should be tailored according to the vision and values within a particular culture.

A ‘linear’ culture would appreciate durability and long service life of a product, a ‘cyclical’ culture would value its performance, and ‘procedural’ one would pay attention to its qualities and usage experience.

Work organisation.

A monochronic mind may find cooperation with polychronic cultures stressful, due to their dispersed attention and seeming nonchalance towards schedules.

And vice versa, for a polychronic person, it will be hard to adhere to a precise, linear and well-planned monochronic approach to tasks.

And the list goes on.

Author: Amina Rakhmankulova


Hall, E.T. (1983). The Dance of Life, The Other Dimension of Time, New York: Doubleday

Lewis, R. D. (1996). When cultures collide: Managing successfully across cultures. London: N. Brealey Pub.

Morphy, H. (1999). Australian Aboriginal Concepts of Time. 265.

Verluyten, S. (2012). Intercultural Skills for International Business and International Relations. Leuven, Belgium: Acco.

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