Two Very Different Concepts of Time

Lesson 2 for The Meaning of Time; Students will delve further into the differences between a time-bound culture and a culture in which time seems almost unimportant.

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 answer the questions:

  • How do people of different cultures view time differently?
  • What can we learn from the way people in other cultures view and spend time?


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


  1. Remind students that one basic way that cultures can differ is in their treatment of time. Cultural anthropologists term the two fundamentally different ways cultures view time as monochronic and polychronic. Create a continuum on the chalkboard similar to the one on the next page, with "monochronic" on one end and "polychronic" on the other.

    Explain to students:
    • The word monochronic can be divided into "mono" (one) and "chronic" (time). In monochronic cultures, punctuality is valued because time is viewed in just one way.
    • The term polychronic can be divided into "poly" (many) and "chronic" (time). In polychronic cultures, punctuality is not important because time is viewed in many different ways.

Provide students with the descriptions of "monochronic" and "polychronic" cultures.

  1. Ask students where they think the culture of the United States might fall on the continuum you've drawn. Where would Guinean culture fall, in comparison? Ask whether any student is familiar with a culture that might be more time-conscious than the United States. [Possibly Switzerland or Germany, both well known for dedication to punctuality.]

Point out that while time may be viewed differently from one culture to another, views of time may also vary within cultures, based on the personal preferences of individuals. We know that a sense of time is cultural when a particular approach applies to a large group of people, or to the majority of people in a particular culture. However, within any culture, there exists a range of individual preferences.

  1. Ask students to jot down in their journals where they might fall on the time continuum. Then ask them to jot down where they think their parents might belong.

Now have students stand up and form a human continuum that ranges from monochronic to polychronic. Ask students to place themselves on the point on the continuum that best represents their personal view of time. Then have them rearrange themselves to represent where they think their parents might fall on the continuum. When students return to their seats conduct a class discussion on what the students observed about the continuum—and what criteria they used to place themselves on it.

  1. Divide the class in half for a debate and, if possible, have the two sides sit facing each other. Assign one group to defend the stances: "Our lives should be run by a schedule" and "Faster is better." Ask the other group to defend the statement: "Life shouldn't be regulated by the clock. Let things happen as they will." Allow the teams some class time to prepare their arguments. Remind them that reasoned arguments and persuasive evidence are much more effective in debates than mere opinions or emotional stances.

Assign a student moderator to manage the discussion between the two sides. Have a recorder for each team write notes on the chalkboard of the points raised by his or her side.

When students have exhausted the arguments for and against each position, wrap up the discussion by pointing out that neither position is "right" or "wrong," and that each may be appropriate for the culture in which it is operative. Try to elicit from students that what might "work" perfectly well in one culture could be highly dysfunctional for another. In the United States, for example, what would happen if trains, airplanes, schools, meetings, medical appointments, and other details of everyday life followed a concept of time that is dominant in Guinea? Likewise, how would Guinean culture fare if the concepts of time followed in the United States were suddenly imposed?

  1. Journal Activity. Conclude the lesson by asking students to respond in their journals to the questions:
    • Why is time viewed one way in Guinea and another in the United States?
    • How did these difference come to be?

Follow up by having students discuss their journal responses in the next class period.

Frameworks and 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


  1. Ask students to work in small groups to write a script for a dramatization that focuses on Ross's struggle to adjust to the cultural norms of Guinea. Then have them perform their dramatizations.
  2. Have students research the basis for the worldwide conventional divisions of time: the 24-hour day; the 60-minute hour; the 60-second minute. What is the prime meridian, and why is it located in England?

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