Friday, February 25, 2011

Tick Tock.

Anyone who has spent much time outside of their home country will note that there is a wide variety of views on time and punctuality in the world.  While there’s plenty variety within countries, I think it’s fair to say the US as a whole tends to fall closer to the up tight end of the spectrum than most. 

Think about it.  Our watches have milliseconds.  Our flight times tend to be something like 7:06 or 1:34.  High schools have 50 minute classes with 5 minute passing periods.  Need an early out day?  No problem.  Each class period will just be cut down to 42 minutes.  People show up early for events to make sure they get a good seat.  We have an entire advertising industry devoted to the twenty minutes before each movie showtime.  That’s before the trailers begin.  Many people arrive a little early for meetings to be able to fill their coffee mug and settle in.  Sure, there’s always one in the crowd rolling in 5-10 minutes late, but it’s usually just one. 

We’ve got a slew of proverbs and adages about the importance of time.  The early bird gets the worm.  A stitch in time saves nine.  There’s no time like the present.  Time and tide wait for no man.  Time is money.  Using time well is a virtue in US society and rightfully so (how to define “well” is another conversation).

Within the US spectrum, I’ve always thought of myself as a relaxed yet more or less prompt person.  I like to be on time, and if I know I’ll get there more than 5-10 minutes late I usually call or send a message to let people waiting on me know why.  As a kid I wasn’t late to school.  My good friend who lived around the corner always seemed to be five minutes early to events, so I thought I was running late when I arrived right on time.  I remember one morning when I woke up late somehow my mom drove me to school with such urgency we went up over the curb as we rounded the corner, a big deal to my eight-year-old self.

My family had our own favorite phrases on time, too.   Anyone who slept in late risked being labeled a “slug-a-bed,” and having the covers of her bed summarily torn off.   Staying in the tent a little too late in the morning on camping trips usually resulted in our parents picking up the end of our sleeping bags and dumping us (screeching with laughter) out of the tops.   The ever popular, “Daylight’s a wasting,” and “Stir your stumps,” came out fairly often.  Or the idealistic, “What have you done for the good of the world today?” 

I don’t mean to say that I don’t enjoy my idleness or take time to rest.  I love a slow day as much as the next person.  I like to knit while listening to podcasts or music.  A day with a book, walk, movie or nap eased in between meals is a day well spent, in my book.  When I don't have responsibilities to others in a given day, I can take free reign to enjoy myself quite happily.  

So, I knew more or less what I was getting into when I came to Guatemala.  I knew I was stepping into a different rhythm of life and prepared myself to embrace the slower side of life.  To have many a lazy day as I learned my community and began to form work projects little by little.  I learned that the Guatemalan phrase on time is hay mas tiempo que vida (there’s more time than life).  I came to understand, and even expect, that meetings would start at least half an hour late.  I take it in stride when women arrive late to meetings that Ela and I hold, and have learned to keep a book handy when going to meet someone.

The thing is, I get it.  Mostly.  Most of the people in my community don't have formal work.  They run a household or work in the fields.  No one has their day planned out down to 15 minute chunks in Outlook.  There aren't any consequences in showing up late.  People don't expect promptness, and don't take offense when it's absent.  That's a little different in the municipality and schools, perhaps, but even there things are pretty relaxed.

What I didn’t expect was just how deeply imbedded my need to be on time really is.  While I can accept others arriving behind schedule, I simply can’t bring myself to be late in work situations.  And when I am made late by others, my own reactions shock me.  I am frustrated, annoyed, and truly angry.  I feel I have been forced to be disrespectful and unprofessional.  I know that those who are waiting on me probably don’t judge me for my lateness, and may not even notice the issue at all.  But I do notice.  And I do care.  I don’t seem to be able to do as the Romans do.  I can let them have their ways, but my own understanding of responsible and respectful behavior is too strong to let myself copy them.  I wonder if time will make me less rigid in this.  If not, I may need to work on my anger management skills.

Better yet, maybe I can just summon Tock, the fictional Watch Dog from Phantom Tollbooth to sing some sense into these Guatemalans!  As he says, “Look, son, it's bad enough wasting time without killing it.”  Right before announcing, "Time is your friend," and bursting into song.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post Bethany. I definitely know what you mean about culture differences on time. When I was in Denmark, I remember it was VERY important to be on time. I once was told that it is less rude to not show up at all than to show up late. Students late for class for reasons other than a delayed train were not looked upon highly. I definitely prefer to be on time and often feel very similar to you when I am late, that I must notify someone or explain what happened. Best of luck with your time challenges!