The Work Ethic
The best work ethic I’ve witnessed was conveyed with a simple sentence by one of my employees.
I asked him to help with a project coordinated with several others. What he said was powerful, simple, and gave me full confidence in his ability. His reply was quite brilliant. I asked him if he could complete everything in the given time. He replied, “No one waits on me!”
I made (well tried to make) this my motto. No one waits on me. I get stuff done. I’m dependable. I see things through. I’m the go-to guy.
If this attitude seems positive and desirable, a fundamental of the work ethic, you are soooo American.
It’s a unique view of time, yes time. It’s not universal. Don’t expect it when you travel.
The Work Ethic Derailed
In my first weeks at Bangkok University in Thailand, I was approached by the Director of the Language Department who asked if I would consider teaching English to Thai corporations and government institutions.
I accepted. The Director asked me to produce content and have it on her desk by Friday. Plenty of time. No problem. No one waits on me.
Except it was a problem. It was the rainy season and each time it rained the power went out. The printer had no paper so I had to sort through the pile of used paper to find sheets with a blank side. Add in the language barrier and a half dozen other cultural issues and I was unable to meet the deadline.
The No Worries Ethic
I was the new guy, a foreigner, and feeling the pressure. When I let the Director know the documents would be delayed she was completely unfazed. She replied offhand “Any time next week is fine.”
Something had changed. I asked her what happened.
“Nothing.” She was puzzled by the question.
What? Two days ago, Friday was the hard deadline, now anytime next week is fine? What’s going on here?
Context is what’s going on here. Specifically, the difference between High-context and Low-context cultures and how each views time differently.
Work And Time In High- And Low-Context Cultures
Just as Collectivism and Individualism are broad cultural divides, the world’s people can be divided into High-context and Low-context cultures.
The difference in how these cultures experience time affects every aspect of life.
|Low-context Time||High-context Time|
|Central for day-to-day functions||Unimportant for day-to-day functions|
Life In The Time-Dependent Low-context Culture
In Low-context cultures, life is organized by time and task. Time has a starting point, for example, the morning. Time is organized and sectioned and tasks are connected with time.
- The day starts with a list of tasks.
- One thing is worked on at a time.
- Each item is checked off when completed.
- Satisfaction comes from completing tasks.
- Dissatisfaction occurs when tasks are not completed.
- Feelings of frustration occur if tasks are partially completed.
- Tasks occur in a specific order.
- Respond to email first. File reports second.
- There is an allotted time for items to be completed.
- Forty minutes for email. Ten minutes to file reports.
If a coworker interrupts while checking email then the day is ‘behind schedule’ and has to be caught up or rescheduled.
If a report is missing doubling the time to file then the day is ‘behind schedule’ and has to be caught up or rescheduled.
At some point time ‘ends’. The day is ‘over’ and one can relax. If the tasks are completed, the day has been productive and one feels satisfied.
Life In A “Timeless” High-context Culture
In High-contexts cultures, tasks are not independent or governed by time. life is more like wading in a waist-deep pool. Tasks are worked on as they float by or you wade toward them. The water moves the tasks around so if you are wading toward one task and your movement pushes it away while drawing in another task, no worries, just work on that task until it floats off and a new task floats by.
Crossing The Cultural Divide
Low-context individuals go crazy in High-context environments because nothing ever seems to get done.
High-context individuals go crazy in Low-context environments because of pressure and stress to ‘get things done’ ‘on time’.
- Individuals in Low-context cultures experience more stress and are less content. But they are super productive.
- Individuals in High-context cultures experience more tranquility and are more content. But they are not super productive.
According to a Gallup poll, the U.S is the 7th most stressed country. Thailand is the 121st.
Obviously, things get done in Thailand and people relax in the United States. It’s the view of time that creates the divide.
That’s why not meeting the deadline set by the Director stressed me out but was of no concern to her.
I’ve attempted to live a High-context life. It’s difficult. Rather than feeling relaxed as I nonchalantly move from one task to another, I feel dissatisfied with a half a dozen unfinished projects waiting (calling to me) to be completed.
I feel like nothing’s accomplished. If you think about it, it’s silly to feel dissatisfied when many items were worked on but no one item was completed.
I think this is why many Americans are stressed. They would feel much more relaxed and content if they were expected to do their job or household duties without the pressure of deadlines.
As a full-time traveler and travel vlogger, I have embraced the Hight-context view of time. If the coach I’m waiting for is 30 minutes late, no worries, I enjoy watching the local culture with no agenda or purpose. It’s lovely.
Not being busy, rushed, or worrying about getting things done is an enjoyment in itself.
Not Better, Not Worse, Just Different
How one culture views time is not better or worse than another. It’s just different.
Unfortunately, High-context individuals are sometimes seen as lazy, undependable, or disinterested when in a Low-context environment.
Low-context individuals are sometimes seen as uptight, agitated, or aggressive when in a High-context environment.
Next time you travel to Thailand, The Navajo Nation, Mexico, Italy, Saudi, Japan, Hopi Land, Brazil, Greece, Kuwait, India . . . don’t be put off by late starting events, disinterested staff, or unfinished requests. They are not lazy or rude, they are people who work with time differently.
Be patient, relax, and sit back. Enjoy life and be content.