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. 

Cultural Values: What Divides Us? What Defines Us?

Values are at the core of cross cultural research.

In the 2011 abstract, The Value of Values in Cross-Cultural Research, authors Ariel Knafo, PhD, Sonia Roccas, PhD, and Lilach Sagiv, PhD, note that, “The centrality of values in cross-cultural research has more than doubled over the last three decades.”

This, according to their review, is because values are what define us, individually, and shape us, culturally.

“At the individual level,” the authors write, “values express broad, trans-situational motivational goals, affecting individuals’ interpretation of situations, preferences, choices, and actions. At the national level, values reflect the solutions groups develop in response to existential challenges and relate to the way social institutions function.”

And this is what distinguishes each individual’s values and each nation’s values from any other.

What Divides Us?

In cross cultural research, cultures are often divided according to particular sets of values.

Need an example?

Picture1

This world map, compiled by Ronald Inglehard and Christian Welzel in their article, “Changing Mass Priorities: The Link between Modernization and Democracy,” differentiates the values of secular-rational vs. traditional values and survival vs. self-expression values.

What are these value sets?

  • secular-rational values – prioritize autonomy, secularism, rationality, and cosmopolitanism
  • traditional values – prioritize religion, obedience, national pride, and respect for authority
  • survival values – prioritize survival, due to its insecurity
  • self-expression values – prioritize free choice

This illustrates, as we’ve discussed in past posts, that not only do nations and individuals have sets of values, but other tightly-knit groups or subcultures – e.g. Catholics, Protestants, Confucians, Muslims, English-speakers, etc. – share core values, as well.

While many nations fit within these groupings, they slide on a spectrum of core values, depending upon how strict or lenient they are regarding secular-rational vs. traditional values and survival vs. self-expression values.

For instance, Spain and Croatia are pretty much smack dab in the middle of both crossroads. And as you might notice when visiting these two countries, survival and self-expression values coexist fairly harmoniously, as do traditional and secular-rational values.

However, if you visit any of the Nordic countries (particularly, Sweden), you will find their cultural values are on the far end of self-expression, as well as secular-rationalism. Someone from a nation with traditional or survivalist values – like Zimbabwe, Morocco, or Pakistan, for instance – might have a hard time integrating into cultures on the extreme end of self-expression and secularism.

What Defines You?

So, how much do our nation’s values influence our own? To what extent do the values of the subcultures we belong to impact us? And what values are we choosing individually?

We’ve discussed how important parental values are in defining the values of children during the stages of primary socialization. These are often some of the most deeply-rooted within a human being. Parents are the moral compasses of a family – and, essentially, of a society.

Cultural values might reinforce this compass or distort it, depending upon whether a child’s parents go with the tide or against it. But, essentially, an individual’s value compass is magnetized at home, after which the magnetic pull of their culture and subculture may offset it from due north. In this way, each of us is a unique cross-breed of family and society.

And this is what defines us.

Next week, we’ll talk about one of the standards by which these values are magnetized: cultural norms.