What is time? And what time is it?

New Year’s 2015

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Americans say things like: ‘You can’t depend on Mexicans, they’re always late.’ Or: ‘Why can’t they show up when they’re supposed to?’  Or: ‘Well, you know, they’re on Mexican time.’

The phrase ‘Mexican time’ is sometimes a sympathetic phrase and at other times it’s an epithet.  It depends on who says it, to whom it’s said, and why.  Why are American travelers so annoyed when services or appointments don’t happen promptly on their timetable?  It’s culture.

When my friends Juan and María invite me to a family dinner in Minnesota, they say: ‘Come any time after 4:00.’  Just to be sure, I ask if they mean 4:00 as in ‘Mexican time’ or in American or ‘gringo time’.  We laugh at this because we both understand the cultural differences in ideas about time in Mexico and the United States.

I tell them I’ll arrive at 4:00 p.m. ‘Mexican time’ because I’ve learned an early arrival isn’t a virtue.  I don’t want to be the first one at the party.  Besides, I know the party really starts much later.  Nonetheless, my grasp of ‘Mexican time’ is still faulty, and when I arrive at 5:00 or 5:30, I’m still among the first to show up.  If I show up that late for an American invitation, the host will be upset; 4:00 means 4:00.

Time, as an idea and as a reality, differs across American and Mexican cultures.  What is ‘time’?  Astrophysicists are still debating whether time really exists.  Without going into the theories of time, it is enough to say the operational ideas of time in Mexico and the United States reflect their respective histories, cultural origins, and daily realities. The idea of time influences social conventions, expectations, and customs.  American cultural ideas about time are embedded in everyday speech.  The phrase: ‘Time is money’ epitomizes the Yankee notion of time.

A clock had little relevance to daily life when I was growing up on our farm.  Time played out as a sequence of chores and tasks without a definite beginning or end.  Each day, we milked cows at daybreak, raked hay after the dew dried, ate dinner at midday (somewhere between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.), and then built fences, harvested corn, or plowed the stubble until sunset.  That was about as definite as our time could be (except for church at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning).  We lived on ‘rural time’ until the mid-1960s, as did all but the most urbanized Americans.

‘Mexican time’ and ‘rural time’ share a lot in common because Mexico was a very rural nation until very recently.  ‘Mexican time’ and American ‘rural time’ move according to interlocking cycles: The daily one of milking and tending animals; the annual one of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.  Rural people don’t ‘punch the clock’.  Hours matter less than the completion of one task before starting another.  And if a task takes too long, it often bumps a chore of lesser importance.  ‘Mexican time’ and American ‘rural time’ contain an inherent latitude or courtesy, understood by all, to accommodate the unforeseen events that otherwise cause someone to arrive ‘late.’

But there are some exceptions.  In Puebla, when my friend Maribel invited me to the surprise party for her eighteen year-old niece, she sent me the address with explicit instructions to arrive at 2:30 – ‘al punto’.   ‘Al punto’ means ‘on the dot’ (punto) at 2:30 p.m. sharp so everyone would be ready to surprise the neice when she arrived.

When someone agrees to meet you ‘al punto’, treat it as a gift because it is.  It means your friend will put the promise to meet you ahead of anything else that might intrude.  ‘Al punto’ means giving control of your time to someone else.  I’ve had very few social meetings ‘al punto’ in Mexico.  Ordinarily, we meet at an approximate time; neither of us feels abashed to be fifteen minutes ‘late’ nor do we feel a need to arrive on the dot.  Apologies aren’t necessary or expected.

American rural (and Mexican) time is as idiosyncratic and as regular as my pulse.  ‘Mexican time’ is more subjective and fluid than ‘American time’.  My Mexican friends regard their time as an integral part of themselves, it’s a form of personal property.  I have time, it is mine, and it goes with me everywhere.  You have time, too; it’s your personal possession to use as you see fit.  In Mexico, the clock is more of a guide for the round of daily chores.  In the U.S., we’ve given the clock authority to govern our way of life, telling us what we will do, and when we will do it.  We’ve elevated punctuality to a virtue and relegated tardiness to a vice.  Only celebrities can get away with being ‘fashionably late.’

Why do Americans and Mexicans experience time differently?  Take a glance at our respective national and social histories to see the difference.  For centuries, each American city and town set its clocks by the sun.  Time was local, relative, and met the community’s need.  ‘Rural time’ was the only ‘time’ in the U.S. until the economy and society were transformed by the construction of transcontinental railroads, growing urbanization, and industrial mass production.

Railroad companies created ‘standard time’ in the 1880s so trains could keep schedules (a point of pride) and avoid collisions (a necessity).  Industrial mass production created assembly lines of highly integrated processes requiring intricately timed actions.  Factory workers had to show up ‘on time’ so the production lines functioned.  Nothing could be permitted to slow or stop production.  Laborers worked ‘by the clock,’ productivity was measured in ‘man-hours’.  Time-and-motion studies determined how to make each worker more productive by accelerating each production step.  Punctuality as an industrial necessity was elevated to an American virtue.  Along the way, the American idea of time ceased to be a subjective, personal property and became an objective, factor beyond individual control.  Time is money.  Workers sold their ‘time’ in exchange for wages.  Institutions control people by controlling their time.

Meanwhile, Mexico developed by a different course of events and influences.  Railroads arrived late in Mexico, industrial mass production didn’t develop deep roots, and urbanization began very recently.  Until the 1950s, most Mexicans lived in impoverished rural communities and the sense of ‘rural time’ is deeply embedded in the culture.  Modern ‘Mexican time’ retains much of its traditional rural fluidity.  Sitting in meetings, I’ve seen the late arrivals quietly greet each person in the room before taking their seats.  Time is personal and social courtesy trumps the clock and the agenda.

By now you may see the cultural divergence in the approach to time.

But there is a further element to the cultural idea of time that leads us toward cultural metaphysics.  For many of the indigenous people of Mexico, time was and remains, circular.  The Aztecs, Zapotecs, and Mayans developed sophisticated systems of astronomy and mathematics.  From these they produced elaborate calendars of predictive cycles within cycles; lunar calendars based on an idea of time that circles back on itself.  Western culture takes a different approach, seeing time as possessing linear properties in which events don’t repeat themselves exactly.  The idea of time, like the language, is an inherent part of the culture we are in.  So, if you’re an American in Mexico, and feel frustrated because things don’t move as fast or as punctually as you wish,

Try this:

Step back, take a deep breath, and relax.  Accept the reality of being in a place where time has a different dimension; where the rules of time are as different as the language.

Treat the ‘delay’ as an integral part of your experience.  Take the opportunity to slow down, to enjoy the moment; look closely at what is around you. You will be enriched.

And although airlines and offices – institutions all – stick to schedules (more or less), most Mexicans move to their own rhythm.  You are in Mexico, so find your natural rhythm and move with it, too.

Chance encounters, improv Spanish


Two college-age women approached me today near Oaxaca’s Santo Domingo.

“May we sing a song to you?” they asked. One was short, with braces, and dark hair; the other was taller, fairer, with curls.

“Why?” I asked, surprised at the request.

“We just want to make you happy,” the one with braces said.

“Make me happy for a donation?” I replied.

“Only if you want to,” the other said.

“Okay,” I said. “Please sing ‘Las Mananitas,” a traditional birthday and celebration song. They cleared their throats and sang reasonably well. After that, we talked for a moment and I learned they were art students. One studied drawing, the other painting. I gave them a few pesos, and the one with dark hair asked if I would like to hear “Cancion de Oaxaca.” I agreed, and she sang it in Zapoteco, the indigenous language. Then we wished each other “buena suerte,” or good luck.

How do you feel about chance encounters with strangers? Do you draw back, or lean in?

This chance encounter was utterly spontaneous and its outcome depended entirely on my response to their question. Although I’m long out of Spanish classes, this is still part of an on-going immersion process. Each encounter opens up an opportunity to use the language in a new way, in a different context, and with someone holding another point of view. I think of it as leaving the greenhouse of carefully cultivated classroom lessons and taking root in the soil of the street.

Only an hour earlier, I stopped in Oaxaca’s Zocalo, the normally placid and magnificent square between the cathedral and the government offices. But it wasn’t tranquil today. Tarps shaded much of it, here and there were pop-up tents where activists slept. Banners bore faces of adult protestors in detention, words denounced oppression by the state government. Other banners decried the disappearance of 43 students, along with a makeshift memorial of candles and a few wilting flowers.

Stopping at a table, I asked the three young women about the cause they were promoting. They laughed nervously as they talked. Their table had cans for donatons to the families of the students who disappeared. Each young woman was studying to be a teacher, one of Mexico’s best-paying opportunities for youths from poor villages, and they came from such places. The brutal loss of 43 students like themselves made them edgy and I heard tension in their voices. Although friendly, I felt their underlying anxiety from knowing it could happen to them.

“What are you doing in Oaxaca? one asked.

I told them I was teaching English in Tlacochuhuaya, another poor town. They smiled. I put 10 pesos in their donation box, and moved on.

Such moments come by chance, but they come if we look for them. Four years ago, on my way to Cuetzalan, I shared a bus seat with a campesino, a man of the country. In a jean jacket and cap, he might almost pass for a Minnesota farmer. Pedro and I began a conversation, and I asked him about the crops growing in the fields along the highway. “You know agriculture?” he asked. I said I grew up on a farm and knew agriculture.

Very quickly, our conversation and relationship changed. Within moments, we were deeply engaged in a conversation about the technicalities of agriculture in Mexico and Minnesota. The questions and answers flew quickly, some of them I didn’t understand at first, nor know how to answer. But we talked and talked for two hours until he got up to get out at the town of Libres.

As he prepared to leave, he said: “My family is having a fiesta in three weeks, I’d like you to come.”
His invitation caught me off guard. For a moment I thought I’d misunderstood him. “It’s an invitation?” I asked, to be sure.

“Si, una invitation.”

Joining his family would be interesting and I was filled with many emotions: pride, joy, and excitement that I could establish rapport to this extent. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. “I would love to meet your family, and you are very kind to ask me,” I said before I told him I couldn’t go because I had to return to the U.S. in a week. “I’m sorry.”

He looked down for a moment and then shrugged the way you do when you can’t change something. “Well, next time,” he said as he got off the bus.

What to make of these encounters? I’ve had lots of them in the last seven years. What do they add up to?

Experience. These encounters are what classroom lessons prepare us to. Classrooms are the beginning, not the end. Encounters are reality, this is language in context, language in use, language with muscles, and flaws, and surprising turns. It helps to think of these moments as “improv theater.” We just make it up as we go along. And in the moment, we are both the actor and the audience. This is where we build our confidence; confidence based on navigating social moments. It’s confidence honed by speaking with people without preparation in the topic. It’s confidence strengthened by straining to understand people whose articulation, or grammar, or syntax is out of whack, partial, imperfect. It’s real speech by real people leading real lives.
How do we do this?

First, let’s step away from our comfort zone in the hotel, the cafe, and the tourist shop where the conversation is predictable, limited, and the environment is familiar.

Second, let’s seek new territory. Look for an activity that piques our curiosity, or is new. Ask a someone an open-ended question to initiate a conversation. We aren’t looking for immediate information, like the location of the bathroom. Our question is intended to elicit an opinion, a point of view, something we and the other can share, if only for a moment. And we might ask the other person something about themselves. It’s that simple.

Third, let’s be present in the moment. Give the other person our full attention, listen closely, following up with another question if we can. Most of us are flattered by the attention of others. We are paying a compliment by being fully present to them. And they will reciprocate.

These are the steps I followed in each of the encounters above. In the case of Pedro, through an extended conversation, I made a friendship, however fleeting. In many other cases, I’ve encountered the same persons a year or two later and they have remembered our meeting. In one case a man recognized me before I noticed him.

This is immersion 2.0, the on-going learning, polishing, and perfecting of our Spanish.

Here’s your assignment. If you’re traveling, step away the hotel, cafe, or shop and look for a situation, a place, an activity where there’s an opportunity for an unexpected encounter. And if you’re not traveling, why not take a trip to the nearest Mexican grocery, mercado, or restaurant and use your language there. It’s improv and no one has ever died from doing this. And in the process, you might just receive the gift of friendship.

Next: el Dia de los Muertos