Do you want to conduct a meeting here in the Philippines? If you want to meet at 12 noon, set the call time at least an hour before that. It’s a common strategy employed by businessmen and even casual friends in the country to ensure that the ones they’re meeting come on time. It doesn’t always work, mind you, but it does decrease the hours you have to wait in the coffee shop before you see your companion running through the entrance door and innocently asking, “Am I late?”
There’s a name for this strange enigma: the Filipino Time. Simply put, it means that Filipinos often come late to appointments (on a case-to-case basis). In other countries, this would be considered as a mortal sin, especially when conducting business. This usually implies that a latecomer does not value time and thinks that he’s always the exception to any rule.
A lot of people place the blame on a defect of character or culture, but what if geography is really to blame?
For American psychologist Philip Zimbardo, people perceive time according to the six main time zones that depend mainly on location: two time zones for past-orientation, two for future-orientation, and another two for present-orientation. He points out in his lecture “The Secret Powers of Time” that “the closer you are to the equator, the more present-oriented you are.” This means that the more you’re in an environment where climate does not change, the more you get a sense of sameness rather than change. “In different cultures, people have a different pace of life,” he continues.
This implies that those in tropical countries like the Philippines might be less pressured by time constraints because the environment does not give their instincts enough reason to be so. After all, in countries with temperate climates, people need to readily adapt to the changing seasons. There are things you can do in the spring and summer that you won’t be able to do during autumn and winter, and vice versa. Can you imagine skiing or ice-skating during a heat streak? How about swimming in the beach during a snowstorm? Gardening might pose a challenge during the season when leaves are turning yellow and are falling all over your lawn.
In contrast, tropical countries that have only two seasons (wet and dry) rarely have any differences when it comes to the things that you can do. In the Philippines, you can even go to the beach during the rainy season if it’s not raining on that particular day.
Even religion, according to Zimbardo, can affect time perception. “Catholics tend to be more present-oriented and past-oriented,” he says. The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country.
Of course, it would be wrong to assume that all Filipinos or inhabitants of tropical countries always come late. These psychological insights, however, surely provide us with a different lens with which we view this thing we measure with a ticking clock.
A better way of dealing with time across cultures would be to research about the customs of the country you’re visiting. There are some cultures where coming early is a mandatory sign of respect. In some occasions, being fashionably late is a staple, especially if you want to make a grand entrance.
In the end, it all comes down to being at the right place, and at the right time. Just make sure you really know what that means—wherever you are.