International Student Services

American Perspective of "Time"

You may wonder why American are always looking to see what time it is. They look at their watches, and check the clocks on their phone and computers. "What time is it?" "Am I late?" "When's the project due?" "How long do we have?" "How much time is left?" These questions are repeated over and over. Americans seem obsessed with being on time, with their schedules, deadlines and project-due dates.

People view time as something that can be saved, spent, used wisely, or wasted. It is considered a valuable but limited source. "Time is money!" In this environment where time is considered a limited commodity, the emphasis tends to be on accomplishing tasks and getting things done. That is considered a good used of your resource - time.

Furthermore, being "on time" in an American environment is considered a sign of respect. It shows that one values the other person's time. Whether it is arriving a few minutes before a meeting or turning in an assignment exactly when due, being "on schedule" indicates that one is serious, committed to the activity, and respectful of the other people involved. Conversely, being late is considered rude and impolite.

The idea of being on time - not being late - is a fundamental concept shaping how people organize their activities. If a class meeting is scheduled to begin at 10:00 AM, one is expected to arrive a few minutes before the hour. Only in social situations, for example, when dinners is to begin at 7:00 PM, it is acceptable, and indeed recommended, to arrive five to ten minutes after the appointment time. If you are invited to a party that is scheduled from 8:00 PM to 11:00 PM or, it is fine to arrive any time between the stated hours and leave any time up until the end of the time. 

Do one thing at a time

The American approach to accomplishing tasks is generally to do one thing at a time, completing one activity before starting another. People follow an agenda in meetings, discussing the points in the order listed. Other topics cannot be discussed until planned agenda items have been covered. Interruptions are limited and are not well-received. People often say "Stay focused" or "We don't have much time, stay with the agenda!"

Be on time

When there is a schedule set for a meeting, an appointment, a class, or a deadline, it is important to meet that time precisely. Being on time is considered a sign of respect. If you are late, it is interpreted that you do not value the person's time and therefore, the person.

Some international students have had the experience of arriving 20 - 30 minutes late for an appointment and finding they are unable to see the person they needed to see. The individual will either be with the next appointment on the schedule or may have left the office for an appointment elsewhere.

It isn't just professors who focus on time. American students are also concerned about meeting time commitments. American students may complain if other students aren't on time with work that is part of group project. Honoring time commitments indicates that one is serious about the work and respectful of the others involved.

When an American friend tells you that he/she cannot talk because of being in the middle of a project due in two hours and promises to call you back later, remember it isn't that the person does not want to visit with you. But actually you friend is just watching the clock. The rule from childhood is "work first, play later."

The American approach to accomplishing tasks is generally to do one thing at a time, completing one activity before starting another. People follow an agenda in meetings, discussing the points in the order listed. Other topics cannot be discussed until planned agenda items have been covered. Interruptions are limited and are not well-received. People often say "Stay focused" or "We don't have much time, stay with the agenda!"