Cultural Time Orientation: How Future-Oriented Cultures View Time

Say, you’re headed to a job interview in the U.S.

You’ve probably prepared for this common question: “Where do you see yourself in 5/10 years?”

This is a perfect example of how Americans – and other future-oriented cultures – view time.

Their focus is on future goals.

What can they accomplish in the present to meet these goals?

How can they benefit in the future from their actions today?

We’ve talked about past-oriented cultures and present-oriented cultures.

If you find yourself most often viewing life in terms of what is to come, you might be from a future-oriented culture.

Future-Oriented Values

“The future depends on what we do in the present.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Future-oriented cultures view life and priorities in terms of long-term goals.

Their values are based on goal-setting and achieving.

In a large-scale study of culture and leadership, the GLOBE project defined future-oriented cultures as those that value “the sacrifice of short-term pleasures and satisfactions in favor of long-term success and prosperity.” 

As you can imagine, such goal-oriented cultures are often competitive and confident, as they have an idea of what they want.

Think, “the American Dream.” 

Sacrificing today means a more promising tomorrow.

Such cultures are grounded in optimism, seeking a better future for themselves and working toward that “dream.”

They value planning and investing.

The study also found that future-oriented cultures – like the U.S., Singapore, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Malaysia – often have a higher GDP per capita, as their forward-thinking values help them see the big-picture.

The Future is Ours

“Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.” – Nikola Tesla

To differentiate between past, present, and future orientation, consider a pipeline potentially being constructed over sacred land.

A past-oriented culture might view the grounds as sacrosanct.

From their perspective, the land should be respected, and the people’s historical use and ownership of these grounds, honored.

A present-oriented culture might primarily value the jobs that this pipeline will provide today – jobs in a region that desperately needs them.

A future-oriented culture might look at the long-term effects of this pipeline. 

What would the benefits of its construction be? The drawbacks and the costs? To what extent would the pipeline impact the environment and the bottom line?

The point is, a culture’s time perception dictates its values.

Cultural time orientation will influence thinking, rationale, and the choices one will make in business and personal matters.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Present-Oriented Cultures View Time

Be present.

Exist in the now.

You only live once.

When it comes to time orientation, present-oriented cultures view the current moment in time as the only moment that matters.

Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo spoke of individual time orientation, saying:

“There are two ways to be present-oriented, the most obvious is to be hedonistic, that you live for pleasure and you avoid pain. You seek knowledge, you seek sensation. There are other people who are present-oriented because they say, ‘It doesn’t pay to plan. My life is fated – fated by my religion, my poverty, the conditions that I’m living under.’”

While personal present-oriented values may not be exactly the same as those who are culturally present-oriented, the belief in fate does play into the perspective of time in many cultures.

Unlike past-oriented cultures, present time orientation results in a short-term thinking style with little focus on the future or the past.

Let’s dive in to the present.

Present-Oriented Values

Present-oriented cultures view the past as a closed book.

It is done, it is finished, it is something that cannot be changed.

Similarly, they view the future as something that has yet to be written, and they don’t have the power or tools to write it.

The past is gone, and the future is uncertain.

The only timeline that truly matters – and to which they have any influence – is the present.

Thus, the focus is on today, for tomorrow may not arrive.

They look to ways in which they can influence the present moment or changes they can make to yield short-term, immediate results.

You might find present-oriented cultures in Latin America and Africa. 

France, too, is said to have a more present-oriented culture, compared to the UK (past) and the US (future).

The Present is a Gift

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.” – Henry David Thoreau

Because their lives are not grounded in the future or the past, present-oriented cultures view the present as a gift.

They live life for today, not tomorrow.

Next week, we’ll talk about how this differs from future-oriented cultures.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Past-Oriented Cultures View Time

How do you make life decisions?

Do you anchor your reasoning in the past, basing logic on tradition and precedence?

Or do you look toward the future, anchoring decisions on what could be?

In the same vein, think about your culture.

Does your culture go back millennia or a mere few centuries?

Or maybe it was born yesterday?

The answers to these questions can tell us about our culture’s concept of time orientation.

We’ve talked a bit about time orientation and perception in a past blog.

But let’s dig a little deeper into each of the 4 Types of Cultural Time Orientation and Time Perception.

Past-Oriented Values

“The past is the beginning of the beginning and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.” – H.G. Wells

In past-oriented cultures, the past is honored and revered and heavily nostalgic, and it plays a large part in how present society is run and how decisions are made.

Past-oriented societies include China, Japan, Britain, and many Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.

They often follow formalities when it comes to working relationships and tend toward conservatism, meaning they are not often progressive in business matters.

Work culture is thoroughly grounded in ways of management that are tied to the past.

They also hold traditional values because feeding a collective memory is key to their cultural identity.

Due to the importance of tradition in these countries, their societies are slow to change. 

If you try to intervene in tradition, you are not to be trusted.

As individuals, too, ancestral worship and family traditions are highly valued.

The Past Guides Us

Past-oriented societies don’t just make decisions based on past experience; they see their hope and inspiration in what has already been.

History, tradition, and precedence inspire them and direct their future.

They invest in businesses and other organizations that already exist.

All resources and efforts are put toward what has been established, and the past is used to evaluate the present.

Past-oriented cultures also tend to be risk-averse, and hiring is done with loyalty of company in mind.

Staff is expected to adhere to policies and procedures, as well as established norms.

Moreover, when planning for important changes that might also require a change in mentality, long time frames accommodate for resistance to said changes.

Change for change’s sake is not appreciated, and the past is led into the future, remaining very much alive in the present.

Visionary leaders of such cultures are able to balance their concept of time enough to ensure change is not too jarring and that the past is not left behind. 

4 Types of Cultural Time Orientation & Time Perception

The ways in which individuals in a culture work and how they view time frames are dictated by whether a culture runs according to a polychronic time system or a monochronic time system.

We talked last week about cultures with informal concepts of time, including cultures that view time as exclusively present (not past or future) and those who view time as cyclical.

How is this time-orientation learned? Let’s take a look.

Values & Norms

Just as values and norms are a culture’s learned behaviors, so is time perception.

Time perception is based on a society’s values. As we mentioned in an earlier post, those from monochronic cultures value relationships above all else. So, if they miss a deadline in lieu of putting time into a family matter, it’s a nonissue.

So, just as children learn values – such as the importance of family – during their primary socialization, so they are oriented toward a specific time cognitivism based on those values.

Time Orientation

There are four different types of time orientation.

These are:

  • Past – the past and the present are interchangeable in past-oriented cultures. They often do not fully grasp elapsed time.
  • Time-line – this type of time cognitivity is a detail-oriented linear concept of time. However, time-line cognitivity does not lend itself to multitasking.
  • Present – you might think of a thrill-seeker when you think of present-oriented cognitivity. These are low-risk aversion cultures.
  • Future – the goal-setting, forward-thinking cultures are future-oriented. Those with future-oriented cognitivity look at the bigger picture and follow their plans through to achieve that picture.

What is affected by time orientation?

Communication, particularly the content of what’s being communicated, as well as the urgency and frequency of communication.

Who Belongs Where

Older countries with centuries of history, such as India and China, are generally past-oriented. The broad scope of time in these cultures enables a view of time that judges minutes and hours as inconsequential.

Forget the stampede and the rush to meet goals. The clock doesn’t rule such cultures – or, in fact, industry or infrastructure in such cultures. A train in India will be late, and few will bother. Late trains and missed deadlines are to be expected.

Cultures who live for today, like France, are considered present-oriented. Their values are more often thrill-seeking and pleasure-based, rather than with a view on the future or the past.

Newer countries with an eye on innovation and the future, like the US, are future-oriented. The “American Dream,” for instance, is a quintessential thread in the country’s cultural fabric.

A dream is an ideal to work toward; hence, it’s always in the future. Milestones are often set to achieve this ideal. And the clock is ticking. This leads to a culture working against the clock.

Time orientation combined with a culture’s values dictate much about the way individuals in said societies live their lives.

We’ll talk about how monochronism and polychronism falls into time orientation next week.

Time is Present: Why Some Cultures Take an Informal View of Time

When a culture appears to have no concept of time whatsoever, their behavioral patterns might irk those from cultures that do.

To better understand this informal view of time, let’s take a quick look at some of these polychronic cultures.

Pirahã Tribe

When you live in the Amazon, a strict monochronic concept of time is unnecessary.

Enter, the Pirahã tribe.

Frozen in time in the middle of the rainforest, the Pirahã’s concept of time is also seemingly frozen.

Their language and behavioral patterns illustrate their concept of time.

There is no past tense in the Pirahã language. Time is a present concept. The future and the past don’t exist.

The tribe’s concept of time may also contribute to their lack of creation myth or religion.

Cyclical Time

Hinduism, Buddhism, and certain Native American tribes – especially the Hopi tribe of Arizona – view time not as linear but as cyclical.

The Hopi language is absent of verb tenses and, similar to other ancient philosophies, such as those mentioned above, their religious/spiritual concepts highlight a cyclical perception of time.

Buddhism even illustrates cyclical time in the famous “wheel of life,” seen below.

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The West’s Perception of Polychronic Time

When Western countries – or those of monochronic cultures – collaborate with polychronic cultures, they might perceive the polychronic perception of time as rude or inconsiderate. Missing deadlines, running late – these things are unacceptable in monochronic cultures, whereas in polychronic cultures, they’re not uncommon, and they aren’t considered rude or inconsiderate.

Why?

Because relationships are ultimately the most important thing.

Many who live in polychronic cultures try to please everyone, making appointments with numerous people at once, scheduling the impossible.

They know they are not superhuman, and they don’t expect to attend to each appointment at their scheduled time; they simply accept that they’ll arrive in their own time.

In other words, people of polychronic cultures are not ruled by a timetable.

Western cultures might find this concept of time baffling. Western time is precise and strictly divided between tasks, especially in the business world.

Since the Industrial Revolution, monochronic time systems have made workers mechanisms in a machine. If workers don’t arrive on time, then the tasks aren’t completed. If the tasks aren’t completed, then money is lost.

“Time is money.”

With such a view, time has value. So, if you’re wasting someone’s time, you’re essentially wasting their money too.

Next week, we’ll discuss how these perceptions of time impact cultural time orientation.