Polychronic Culture in Latin America: Thoughts and Facts on Time
Time is of the essence. Time is money. We have plenty of time. There’s never enough time.
There are so many different attitudes and concepts about time out there. In this post, we’ll explore:
- The history of time
- How people in Latin America view time
- Ways other cultures around the world view time
- How life and work flows in polychronic cultures
A Brief History of Time
Paleolithic artifacts indicate that people used the moon to mark time as early as 6,000 years ago. Lunar calendars (such as the Mayan Calendar) were among the first to appear.
Julius Caesar’s reforms put the Roman world on a solar calendar, but the Julian calendar allowed the astronomical solstices and equinoxes to advance against it by about 11 minutes per year, which adds up over the centuries.
Pope Gregory XIII introduced his Gregorian calendar in 1582, and it remains the most commonly used calendar. Catholic countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Italy immediately adopted the new calendar system, leaving behind the old Roman calendar developed by Julius Caesar. Protestant Germany waited until 1700 to switch over, and England resisted until 1752.
The U.S. national time standard wasn’t adopted until 1883 when the widespread use of railroads made it necessary to maintain common timetables. Prior to that time, cities generally kept their own local time and resisted having government and industry force standardization on them. Of course, today most people in the U.S. and other developed countries use all sorts to agendas, planners, and digital calendars to keep track of their appointments, task lists, priorities, and goals.
Monochronic vs Polychronic
Different cultures perceive time differently. Chronemics is the field of study that analyzes the role of time in communication. Monochronic societies have a standardized and linear view of time, compared to polychronic cultures for which time is less tangible and more flexible.
In monochronic societies, people take time seriously, adhere to a fixed schedule, and value the sequential completion of tasks (doing one thing after the other). This perception of time is rooted in the Industrial Revolution. Archetypal examples include the United States, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and the Scandinavian countries.
Monochronic time is:
- Segmented into precise, small units
- Sequential, with tasks typically done one at a time
- Scheduled, arranged, and managed
- Focused on regimented schedules, tasks, and “getting the job done on time”
- Viewed as a tangible commodity that can be spent, saved, or wasted
Polychronic societies make up most of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In these areas, people perceive time as more fluid, where multitasking and interruptions are normal. Time aligns more with the sun, the moon, and Mother Nature than it does with the hands of a clock. Anyone who has shown up “on time” for an event in Latin America and waited two hours for it to begin will confirm: time commitments here are not set in stone.
Polychronic time involves:
- Several things done at once (“multitasking”)
- A more fluid approach to scheduling
- Less focus on the precise accounting of each and every moment
- Being more steeped in tradition and relationships rather than in tasks
- A more informal perception of time
- Not using precise calendars or schedules
Arbitrary divisions of clock time and calendars are less important than the cycle of the seasons, the patterns of rural and community life, and the religious calendar of rituals and celebrations.
Furthermore, life moves along at a slower pace in places with warm climates. This could result from a general lack of energy due to the debilitating heat. Or, perhaps people in warmer climates just naturally take more time to enjoy life.
Each culture or nation tends to have a general preference toward past, present, or future thinking. The time orientation of a culture affects how it values time and the extent to which it believes it can control time.
Often (but not always), past orientation arises in cultures with a long history, including both Spain and Mesoamerican countries like Mexico and Guatemala. Future orientation in younger countries such as the U.S. For several generations, the United States has been one of the fastest-paced countries in the world. This arises in a culture that values busyness and promotes “the American Dream” of owning a nice home, a fancy car, and plenty of other possessions. This results in a widespread tendency to live a hectic lifestyle that promises achievement and success.
Past-orientated cultures are more laid back in the way they look at time. It is not unusual for buses and shuttles in Guatemala to be hours late, for example. This does not create undue stress because people are accustomed to this possibility. Just as a week seems much shorter for an elderly person than for a child, perhaps more ancient cultures have such a long perspective on time that the scale of minutes or even hours seems inconsequential.
Chronemics is the study of the use of time and how individuals and cultures perceive and value time. This field examines concepts such as punctuality, patience for waiting, face-to-face interactions, and time pressure.
While we can agree that a day contains 24 hours, the length of a “work day” varies by country. Historically, countries resisted the global clock, but international commerce compelled them to use it to even the playing field.
What’s more, different sub-cultures in the same country may even regard time differently. Mexican-Americans living in the U.S. differentiate between la hora inglesa (the actual time on the clock) and la hora mexicana (which treats time more casually). The latter is akin to la hora chapín here in Guatemala, meaning everything begins later than scheduled.
The Pace of Work
Individualistic cultures typically move faster than cultures that emphasize collectivism. In the United States, a classic individualistic culture, people tend to move fast and value time down to the minute. These cultures focus on achievement. This leads to a “time-is-money” mindset in which there is an urgency to make every moment pay off. The pace of Latin American life is decidedly slower. In cultures where social relationships take precedence, a much more relaxed attitude toward time prevails.
Latin American workers often eat an early breakfast, go to work by 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., have an almuerzo ejecutivo around midday or 1pm, finish work at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. and have a light dinner prior to an early bedtime. In some nations, such as Mexico, they enjoy a daily afternoon siesta, a time of rest from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., during which businesses are closed and people rest or nap after eating a large lunch.
If you are going to be visiting, moving to, or doing business in Spain or Latin America (or any polychronic culture), it’s good to know how they view time and how that affects life and work.
During negotiations, people will move freely between topics, which tends to frustrate many U.S. and European businesses. Relationships are prioritized over deadlines and schedules. Planning to meet at 11 really means 11:30 or 12.
People tend to be late for business meetings because they care more about family time and building friendships than they do work. It’s not considered rude but rather expected. Time is neither tightly scheduled nor “set in stone” for Latinos.
Time to Move On
You may find the polychronic cultures refreshing as opposed to the nonstop nature of monochronic cultures. It’s always a good idea to slow down and cultivate more presence, patience, and peace in our lives. Which time system do you prefer?
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