“And one more thing,” proclaimed Carla, our native Nicaraguan chaperone for the week, “you might as well put your watches away while you are here. You’re used to American time, but while you’re with us, you will be on Nica time. Trust me, just roll with it.”
It was my first time to Nicaragua, leading a group of young adults on a service trip for nine days to a village called Ticuantepe. We had no running water, limited electricity, and even less privacy. Carla, who had been leading groups like this for over six years, was well versed in helping American ‘mission workers’ adjust to life in a developing world country and her comment about Nica time was very sage. We were tasked with creating an eight foot by eight foot structure that would become the home of a family we served alongside with over the course of about five days. Most Americans would be used to a schedule with tasks that would need to be completed each day, checking off each finished task throughout the project. But we quickly learned that supplies wouldn’t always be available right when we needed them. It may rain at the exact time we were supposed to start mixing cement and laying another two levels of bricks. The road to the work site may be unexpectedly blocked. We all had to learn to adapt to the realities of a different culture and it was a very good lesson for each of us.
This theory of “flexible time” is described in great detail in the eighth section of Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map, a best-selling work on the complexities of cross cultural communication, and the necessity to base ones “expectations accordingly.”[i] An excellent graph of the cultural differences of time is shown below.
As the graph demonstrates, on one extreme are the exceedingly precise Germans and Swiss. When someone in these cultures says a meeting is at ten, the meeting begins at ten sharp! Perhaps this is why they make such famous watches, clocks and time pieces. Americans fall relatively close to this more precise end of the spectrum. However, you can see that Latin American countries, such as Nicaragua, tend to be more flexible with their understanding of time. I certainly experienced this on my trip.
Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, it is often these countries that are the most flexible with time, that have the least amount of it left before catastrophic damage occurs to their lands. As numerous studies have shown, it will be the lands in Latin America, numerous Island Nations and the coastal countries of Africa that will first be impacted by rising seas. [ii] Many of these countries are considered “developing nations” which indicates that the world’s poorest nations will be impacted first.[iii]
Last week, as leaders of the countries that tend to appear on the other end of the time spectrum, the one where time is more precise, met in Davos at the World Economic Forum, they were greeted by a stark message from sixteen year old Greta Thunberg, urging them to immediate action to combat climate change by proclaiming “our house is on fire.”[iv] May these world financial leaders heed Thunberg’s call, and realize that just like their own cultural inflexibility with time, in relation to the global climate, there is not a second to waste.
[i] Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2015, 225.
[ii] Quirin Scheirmeier, “Clear sings of global warming will hit poor countries first,” Nature, April 20, 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04854-2
[iii] Suzanne Goldenberg, “Climate Change: The poor will suffer most,” The Guardian, March 30, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/31/climate-change-poor-suffer-most-un-report
[iv] Greta Thunberg, “Our house is on fire,” The Guardian, January25, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate