Recognizing How Another Culture Differs From One's Own

Students will discover how the concepts of time and punctuality can differ markedly in the United States and another country.

Background Information

About the Story
In "The Meaning of Time," Ross describes her adjustment to some of the cultural differences she experienced in Guinea. In particular, she provides insight into one of the fundamental ways that cultures differ—their concepts of time. Her story is an excellent companion piece to "Three Lessons" and "Soccer Until Dusk." Teaching the selections together will lead your students to see similarities in the way time is viewed in many developing countries.

About the Setting
Despite mineral wealth, Guinea is one of the poorest countries in the world. The tropical country's economy depends mostly on agriculture. Leading crops are coffee, bananas, palm kernels, and pineapples. There are rich deposits of iron ore, gold, and diamonds, but Guinea's underdeveloped infrastructure has not supported industrialization.

Guinea has four geographical regions: a coastal region, where the capital lies on a peninsula; a highland region of hills in the northwest; dry lowlands in the north; and hilly, forested areas in the east. Rainfall in the capital reaches 13 feet a year, but much of the rest of the country receives significantly less than that.

French domination from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century yielded to independence for Guinea in 1958. Although French is widely spoken, Malinke, Fula, and Susu are also commonly spoken.

Since the arrival of the initial group of Peace Corps Volunteers in 1963, about a thousand Volunteers have served in Guinea. The program today consists of about a hundred Volunteers working in four kinds of projects: secondary education, public health, natural resource management, and small enterprise development. In addition, a small number of third-year Volunteers work with international or local nongovernmental organizations.


To identify and understand the significant cultural traits described by the author


  • Indigenous: Native to
  • Habitually: Usually; normally; routinely
  • Tolerant: Open-minded; able to see both sides of an issue objectively 


  1. Read Ross's letter aloud to the class or have the class read it themselves.
  2. In the space of just two and a half pages, the author spotlights at least five important cultural traits that are true of life in Guinea. Ask students to analyze the text to identify these traits, writing them down in their journals. Students should identify the following traits from the text:
    • Greetings cannot be hurried; social obligations are paramount.
    • Punctuality is unimportant.
    • What happens in everyday life is beyond the control of an individual person. (Inshallah, meaning "God willing" in Arabic, defers responsibility for things to Allah. Allah is the Muslim name for God.)
    • Climate, in the form of extreme heat or heavy rain, often affects people's routines.
    • People have to be highly resourceful in practical, everyday matters.
  3. In class discussion, address each trait, using the following paragraphs as discussion guides.
    • Greetings. Given the stated importance of unhurried greetings in Guinea, ask students whether there is anything akin to strict greeting protocol in their own culture, in the United States. To help students realize that there is, in fact, an obligatory greeting protocol frequently followed in the States, ask volunteers to perform several mini-skits, in pairs, in front of the class, simulating two friends meeting and greeting on the street. Try to elicit from the students, in discussion after the skits, that there are physical greetings (handshakes, hugs, high-fives, grasping fists) and obligatory queries ("How's it goin'?" "How are you doin'?" "What's up?" "How're things?") that precede a conversation between friends. Students might also simulate telephone conversations, in which participants rarely launch into substantive conversation until polite queries are exchanged. Also try to elicit from students through discussion that the questions people often ask each other upon greeting are pro forma greetings to which they do not expect to get either full or necessarily truthful answers. (We don't expect someone to answer the question "How are you?" with a litany of health issues; the polite answer, regardless of how many ailments one is experiencing, is "Fine," or "Okay.")

      Ask students in what ways Guinean greeting protocols are similar to those in the United States. In what ways are they different? What might account for these differences? What cultural function do students think formal greeting protocols serve?

    • Punctuality is unimportant. Perhaps Ross summarized this trait best when she reported that being on time was actually being early—and that everyone else, who she thought was late, was on time. This trait of punctuality being of no concern is so deep-rooted that it will be addressed separately in the next lesson.
    • Inshallah. Much of the population of Guinea is Muslim. Muslims defer to the God of Islam, Allah, in all matters, so that they often add the term inshallah, or "God willing," to statements. For a full discussion of the use ofinshallah, see the reading selection"Three Lessons," by Craig Storti.
    • Climate affects routine. Ask students in what way the author found climate affecting people's routines. [Rains caused delays on the roads; heat kept people inside midday.] Ask students if climate affects culture in the United States in similar ways. If it does not, why not? [Most roads in the United States are paved, so rain does not affect transportation as significantly as it does where it renders dirt roads impassable. Air-conditioning tends to ameliorate the effects of midday heat, so that office workers can work right through it.]
    • People have to be resourceful. The context in which the author made this observation was road transportation, and the need for drivers to fix their own vehicles with materials at hand. Ask students to speculate on why this is necessary. [The infrastructure of gasoline stations and tow trucks, along with automobile club membership that provides instant road assistance, does not exist in Guinea. Drivers in the "bush" are used to making jury-rigged repairs to get them to a garage for full service.]
  4. Ross, in confronting these different cultural traits, concluded that she needed two specific traits of her own to adapt to life in Guinea. Ask students to identify these two traits from the text. [Patience and tolerance.] Explain to the class that these two traits are probably the two traits most widely exercised by Peace Corps Volunteers in adjusting to life in their host cultures. Discuss with the class whether they think patience and tolerance are useful in other kinds of adjustments in their own lives and in their own communities. Ask them to be specific.

Frameworks & Standards

Enduring Understandings

  • The concept of time differs among cultures.
  • In some cultures, social obligations and relationships may be more important than work-related responsibilities.

Essential Questions

  • How do our cultural values affect the way we choose to spend time?
  • What can we learn from the way people in other cultures treat time?


English Standard: 2
Social Studies Standards: I, IV, IX
National Geography Standards: 6, 10
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Uncommon Journeys Appendix (see link above).

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