My mother was always early to everything. I don’t know how she did it with work and 5 children, but she did. Not only that—I never saw her waste time. She would fold clothes or type catalog cards while watching a baseball game. I never saw her just relax. She used every minute she had to the max.
It’s hard to unlearn something so ingrained in your psyche, so when I traveled to West Africa for a 2-year missions assignment, I hit a time-warp brick wall. Here I was, the time-focused perfectionist, moving to a relational, relaxed culture. If that wasn’t a rude enough awakening, I would later marry an Egyptian and serve the next 20 years in the Middle East. What do you do when you have plans with people to come for dinner at 6 and they show up at 8:30? Makes for some dry meat, cold meals, and a cranky hostess, to say the least.
What was ingrained in me looked a lot different from those in African and Middle Eastern cultures. Our concept of time travels with us, whether it’s me in their country or them in mine. Why can’t we see time the same way? Because cultures are different.
While some generalities can be made about warm (relational) and cold (time-oriented) cultures, no one size fits all when it relates to time. I like to look at the idea of an onion culture versus a straight-line culture. In the West (with some exceptions in various US regions), we take a linear view of time. This is why we plan our days and years and thrive on calendars and strategic plans. In the onion culture, the thinking is more in layers, and people react to situations instead of working toward something in a proactive way.
How different cultures deal with weddings is a good example. In the Middle East, if I was invited to a wedding, then I would leave my house at the time on the invitation. I wouldn’t miss much, even if it’s already started when I get there. That’s an easy assumption when I’m in the Middle East, and weddings last several hours. But if I’m going to a wedding in Tennessee, the ceremony would be done and cake almost eaten if I don’t get there within the hour.
Knowing time is different for different cultures can help you do ministry better, both there and here. Time can cause major problems for immigrants to time-conscious countries. Be a friend who can help them adjust to get to work, school, or church on time. Help them see the importance of time in your country while remembering the importance of relationships in theirs.
How do you find balance in cross-cultural relationships? Have a conversation with your friends. Ask them what their customs are and help them understand yours. It helps to give a range of time you can visit with them. Even if they’re late, then they know you’ve blocked off a specific amount of time just for them. Focus on the person and not your watch, remembering, above all, God calls us to relationship with Him and others. Time is in His hands.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Missions Mosaic. To subscribe to this monthly missions lifestyle magazine, visit wmustore.com.