A Little Interview on Time

What is time for you?

The Colombian says: 

“Well, time … is not so important. I mean there is breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack and dinner. So a rough idea is ok, but I prefer to be a little bit more flexible. And relaxed. I don’t want to stress out, but take life easier.”

The German says: 

“Time is very, very, very important. You need time to plan, schedule, organise, programme, prepare,… You need it to be efficient and organised. Structure is crucial. Punctuality is everything. Without time, we would be totally lost.”

You want to meet a friend for a coffee — how does that happen?

The German answers: 

“Easy. I call my friend, make a date for 12 pm on Thursday and put that into my calendar. I don’t need any more confirmation that the date will happen. On the day I will plan my time ahead to be there 10 minutes before, just to be on the safe side. My friend will arrive at the same time, as agreed. Done.”

The Colombian answers: 

“I call my friend and we chitchat for about 10 minutes about life. Then I say let’s meet on Thursday afternoon-ish. My friend loves the idea. In the course of the next few days, I need to reconfirm this date at least 2 times, just to make sure it is really going to happen. 

Then on the day of the date, I will start to slowly get ready at around 11:50. I will write a text message to my friend that I am on my way (which is obviously not the case). I will eventually arrive between 1 and 2, depending on what else comes up in between, but no stress. My friend will arrive approximately at the same time or even later, so “todo bien” (all good).

But what if you are a German in Colombia?

If you are accustomed to any of those two cultures, you will be fine. But if you are a German traveller like me that chose to live in Colombia, you will be absolutely lost. 

I would have waited at least 2 hours at the meeting point, thinking the whole time my friend was already on the way (when that obviously is never the case). Or I would wait forever because I didn’t confirm the date again, so my friend simply assumed it wouldn’t happen. In any case, big fail.

The German Perspective on Time

For me as a German, the hardest thing to get used to when I started to move to Colombia 2 years ago was the very different idea of time. It literally made me go crazy. And it made me realise very quickly that, despite me travelling the world, the German in me is still very strong.

Growing up as a good German girl, I was taught to always be on time. Punctuality is one of the most important traits of German culture. And to be honest, I like punctuality, I like order, I like efficiency. I am of the firm opinion that this is also a reason why the German economy and social system is working better. 

My parents, teachers and authorities taught me early on that structure is a good thing, that I need order in my life to succeed. I used to love planning my weeks and months ahead, making to-do lists and scheduling meetings and events.

But there is also a downside to the German order. When we want to structure, control and plan everything, we tend to stress out really quickly. You probably know that really well, when you plan your day and something happens that just completely destroys all your plans. I get annoyed, tend to feel anxious and start to stress out. 

Why? Because growing up we are told to use our time efficiently, to organise our day, to be productive at all times — if not, that basically means failure. Success means order.

Let’ be honest, the constant pressure we put on ourselves maybe makes us more productive, but will eventually also make us sick.

Moving to Colombia, EVERYTHING I thought I knew about how time works, was turned upside down.

The Colombian Perspective on Time

Fact is, Colombians are just way more relaxed. That can be a positive or a negative trait. Let me give you some examples.

Let’s say my friend told me he will be there in 20 minutes — and German as I am I had dinner ready 15 minutes later. When he arrived 2 hours later, the food was cold and I was furious. A Colombian wouldn’t be affected by this at all. Another very annoying habit is “mañana”. Trust me, I love the Colombian language even more than the German language, but this particular word makes me furious.

“Mañana” means tomorrow — and that is literally where everything in Colombia happens. 

Like when we were renovating our house, the landlord literally told me every single day that he will repair the bathroom “mañana”. The first day I thought “Ok, maybe he just forgot”. The second day I thought “Well, I don’t like it but I can forgive this”. The third day, I was starting to get furious. From that point on, when I heard him say “mañana” again, I stopped to believe it. Two weeks later he finally fixed the problem. You can imagine how long it took to get anything done. The only choice you have is to do it yourself.

Planning anything in Colombia is in general very hard — things kind of just happen spontaneous. Trust me, I tried to make a weekly (or even daily) schedule, but it just fails every single time. Why? Because it just isn’t how Colombians live their lives. When a friend is going to visit you, they usually just appear at your doorstep without saying anything. 

There is no way you can plan anything. Every day is a surprise.

So with time (haha), I started to actually learn some really valuable stuff from the Colombian way of living. The Latin culture taught me to make life easier and relax. I learned to go with the flow and not stress when something doesn’t happen according to plan. I practice flexibility every single day. 

And it is a beautiful exercise almost all Western cultures can learn from the Latin way of living — let life surprise you. Anyhow, we humans mostly have no idea what we really need, we just know what we want. But one thing is for sure: we all need more spontaneity and flexibility in our lives.

Balance is Key

In conclusion, it is neither the German nor the Colombian way — it is a balance. In the past 2 years, 

I have learned to integrate the German efficiency and order into the Colombian chill.

I still organise my days, but I leave room for change. I don’t stress out when something doesn’t happen according to plan. Okay, let’s be honest sometimes I still do but much less than before. I even managed to motivate my Colombian friends to start to manage their time a bit more efficiently, without the constant pressure of productivity.

I get things done, but not when I say it, but rather when life tells me to. It is so important to learn to listen and move to the rhythm and energy of the day — not every day is the same. Some days are good to get things done, others not. I guess the 9 to 5 week doesn’t really help either. Because no matter how much you plan, life usually happens in its own order, which we humans do not understand.

So take it from a Colombian German like me — life is better lived in a flexible order.

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