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By Francis Underhill

“Indonesians live in
‘rubber time.’

I first became aware that time has a cultural dimension when I was assigned to our consulate in the city of Medan on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, my first non-European post in the Foreign Service.

My Indonesian language teacher, Saleh Arif, came to the consulate each work day at 5 p.m. for a half hour language lesson. I mentioned one day that I had to get out invitations for an official reception two weeks away. Saleh said, “Francis, you are inviting people to a party 14 days from today. Most Indonesians don’t like to be committed to anything that far in the future. At 7 p.m. on the 23rd I might be enjoying myself with friends and not want to leave them. Something might come up that evening I’d rather do. As your friend, I’d like to feel I could drop in at your house any evening at supper time and be welcomed.”

Indonesian food lends itself to this kind of spontaneous informality. It is rice with sauces and side dishes that can be expanded easily to accommodate extra mouths. We adjusted to the Indonesian way. We moved to a simple, expandable evening meal and invited people no more than three or four days in advance. It wasn’t unusual for guests to arrive with two or three extras in tow. “Kumoro and Didi arrived just as we were leaving for your house, so we brought them along. You’ll like them.”

We soon realized we were dealing with differing concepts of time. In our culture, time has substance. It is not to be wasted. It is a container to be filled. We maintain calendars and make schedules to manage separate blocks of time. We measure accomplishment by how well the allotted segments are used. We take appointments seriously, and see promptness as a virtue. Our language is full of adages urging us to use time wisely, “to fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run.”

Our approach to time, which developed after the invention of the mechanical clock, is probably one of the reasons why Europe, a stagnant and peripheral backwater in the year 1000, became the predominant culture by 1500. Our own industrial and scientific preeminence and material wealth is also rooted in efficient use of time.

But we have paid a price. We think that with schedules we can control the future, but often find instead that we have become the prisoners of schedules. We are compulsive about filling blocks of time with useful activity and hurry like the Mad Hatter from appointment to appointment. We are frustrated when a task takes longer than the time we had planned. We interrupt work we have almost finished and stop activities we’re enjoying because we’re “running behind schedule.” From this can come stress and alienation. Seeing reality as a series of segmented time compartments can blind us to the wholeness of life.

“Wasting time” for the Indonesian is a meaningless concept. Time is seen as a gentle river carrying everything along. Little effort is made to “manage” the flow. “Morning,” “noon,” “afternoon,” “evening,” divide the day adequately. Indonesians explain to Westerners that they live in “rubber time.” Appointments, when made, are vague, provisional indications of intention. Harmonious interaction with other people in a flexible, spontaneous, unstructured context is the norm they seek. Interpersonal skills are valued and highly developed.

This approach to time is reflected in their language. Verbs in Indonesian have no tense. A time indicator is used, if necessary, at the beginning of a thought, but the verb remains the same for the past, present, future, and pluperfect subjunctive.

Westernized Indonesians function, of course, in both time worlds. During the work day they go to the office, work to a schedule, and make and keep appointments. When they return home the evening, they take off the western suit, put on a sarong (forget Dorothy Lamour: sarongs are worn by men), and move to the Indonesian floor of their cultural split-level.

When I was in charge of Indonesian affairs in the State Department, part of my job was to meet the Indonesian ambassador at the diplomatic entrance on C Street when he had an appointment with the assistant secretary. Without exception, the ambassador’s limo arrive with exactly five minutes to spare, allowing time to go up in the elevator and walk in the assistant secretary’s suite on the dot of the appointed time.

The ambassador’s briefing book must have had an entry something like this: “TIME: Americans have a hang-up about time. If you are late for an appointment, they will think you unorganized and irresponsible. Even worse, they may condescend and patronize you as a simple, gentle Southeast Asian. No ‘rubber time’ here. Do as the Romans do.”

There are, of course, many individual, regional, and national variations in approaches to time.

A friend assigned to Stockholm was told that the Swedes expected promptness, so on their first dinner invitation, and uncertain of the way, they left home early. They arrived five minutes before the appointed hour and found four other guests standing silently in the hall outside the door of the hosts’ apartment. At exactly 7 p.m., the guest closest to the door pushed the bell. The door opened immediately, and all six guests filed in together.

Each of us has a slightly different feeling for the number of minutes that must elapse before we or another is “late.” We recognize that a doctor’s appointment is only an approximation. Hostesses issue invitations for “sevenish,” and anyone arriving promptly at 5 p.m. for a 5 to 7 p.m. cocktail party may find the hostess still making canapes.

Many Americans abandon the rat race, and many that stay at it because they want it all, finally get it all after years of struggle, and then ask the plaintive, poignant question, “Is this all there is?”

There are also regional differences. After some years in North Carolina, I think most Southerners would find the Indonesian approach to time less strange than I did.

Ambassador Underhill, a regular contributor to American Diplomacy, lives in Flat Rock, NC. This column appeared originally in the Hendersonville (NC) Times-News ; reprinted by permission of the author.

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