Differences between American Culture and Colombia Culture: Concepts of Time

We all know each culture is unique and ports its own traditions, customs, languages, and idiosyncrasies. These elements of culture become even more evident the more time you live in a culture different from your own. That being said, the more time I spend living in Colombia and immersed in Colombia culture, the more differences I discover exist between Colombian culture and my own culture—that of the United States. Today, I want to talk about one of those differences: the concept of time.

In the United States, people respect time, obsess over time, and are constantly looking for ways to better manage and organize their time because “time is money,” “time can’t be wasted,” and being punctual is not only important, but is also expected and highly respected. In the United States, when someone says they will pick you up at 3:30pm, chances are they will arrive very close to 3:30pm, and if they cannot arrive on time they will likely let you know; if you have a meeting at work that starts at 8am, people will probably arrive between 7:45am and 7:55am, because it’s much better to be early than late; it’s considered normal for people to cut short phone calls, rearrange plans, and even cancel plans with people in order to meet deadlines, arrive places on time, and better manage their time.

Sunset in Cartagena

Sunset in Cartagena

In the United States, people understand when you say, “I don’t have time,” or “I am too busy,” or “I am running late,” as excuses for not finishing conversations, canceling dinner plans, or even missing family events. While some people may not like that you use these excuses, most people do accept them, use them, and agree they are culturally normal. Not so much in Colombia…

While time is becoming more important in Colombia in certain realms of society, time is still less important and more fluid than it is in the United States. Colombians favor human interactions more than efficient time management, and the concept of things starting or ending at fixed times is unlikely in most contexts. For instance, parties NEVER start at the time they’ve been designated to start and no one arrives on time because it’s almost rude considering your host won’t likely be expecting anyone to arrive until at least 30 minutes to an hour, or later, after the time they’ve set for the party to start. Meetings may or may not start on time, but there will most certainly be several people late and chances are no one will think it’s weird or necessarily rude that these people arrive late in most cases. Likewise, if you’ve made plans to have dinner with friends, and they’ve told you they will pick you up at 6:30pm, expect them around 7pm or later. In my experience, most Colombians leave their house around the time they should be supposedly arriving somewhere, and since that is normal, don’t expect a phone call saying they are running late as in their mind they are on time.

Human interaction, aka, Colombian Christmas Party

Human interaction, aka, Colombian Christmas Party

You may be thinking that it must be pretty crazy to live in a culture with such a different concept of time; however, I have to admit that while sometimes frustrating, it’s also refreshing at times to realize that time is not in fact the most important thing and that human interactions are more valuable than always being punctual!

Cheers to more fluid concepts of time,

Paige M. Poole,

About the author:

“Paige M. Poole is an Alabamian and traveler at heart who has settled, for now, in Barranquilla, Colombia, and earns her living as an English professor at the Instituto de Idiomas (Language Institute) at la Universidad del Norte (University of the North). When not teaching English, she enjoys blogging, traveling, relaxing on the beach, and spending time with her partner and two cats, Milo and Sophie.  You can see more of Paige’s traveling experiences in her personal blog www.trotamunda.wordpress.com

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4 thoughts on “Differences between American Culture and Colombia Culture: Concepts of Time

  1. Thank you for beautifully summing up what has made me want to pull my hair out for the past ten years! I’m an American married to a Colombian with a very different concept of time. How refreshing to see things from a different perspective!

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