ON TIME OR MONGOLIAN TIME?
Have you ever felt like time is going slower in Mongolia? Have you ever been late to an appointment only to find that you’re the first to arrive? If you have, you’re not the only one who experienced it. Even locals feel frustrated with the unique sense of time in Mongolia.
I’ve been to many events organized by Mongolians within and outside of the country, and every event started at least 30 minutes to as much as an hour late. During the time I had to wait, all the excitement would drain away and remind me that I should probably not be on time next time.
Like the saying “time is gold”, each millisecond is priceless and should not be wasted as it cannot be reversed. There’s a reason why people compare time to gold and measure it with money. Time runs continuously without stoppage. It never waits for anyone. Being late and wasting other people’s time is an indication of disrespect, which ultimately leads to mistrust.
With an ordinary lifestyle, you might not have realized the value of time or simply not paying much attention to it. However, people all over the world are constantly racing against time as they understand its significance. Losing even a second could cost a life for doctors and police officers, an important deal for businessmen, a job for part-time workers, and a product sale for housewives.
In Mongolia, people often lie that they are leaving their home or nearly arrived at the promised venue when they’re actually still inside their home. As you wait, you wonder what’s taking them so long, worry if they’ve been in an accident, and even doubt whether you’re in the right place. Instead of making your family, friend, or acquaintance experience such unnecessary thoughts and waste their time, the person at fault should have tried to be more punctual, or at least tell them honestly that they will be running late. Lying can severely damage the trust and credibility a person has in you. After having to waste away their time waiting, most people automatically jot down in their mind not to trust the person who made them wait and come later to their next meeting as it’s highly likely that a person who’s late once will be late for the next occasion, especially if they didn’t have a valid reason. So, be honest and allow the person waiting to spend their priceless time more productively than idly sitting around.
An expat volunteer from Singapore living in Mongolia for nearly seven years says that she has suffered countless times because of the unique concept of time in Mongolia. She said the hardest thing about it is having to reschedule appointments.
“Generally, more than 50 percent of Mongolians do not have the concept of punctuality, not sure if it is due to the nomadic background where plans are very linked to the weather. I am always pleasantly surprised if someone is on time nowadays. Time management is very much linked to planning. Unfortunately, even on the government level, time management doesn't seem to be ideal,” she said.
Alcina Lee, a Hong Konger who has been volunteering in Mongolia every summer and winter for the past seven years, has experienced so many lateness that it has rubbed off on her.
“I've always found the Mongolian sense of time very interesting. I probably would see it as a problem or challenge in early years but not anymore. It was a problem because in Hong Kong, time is money, time is precious. Whether in a restaurant setting, post office or at work, we want everything to be efficient and on time, if not earlier. So it was a huge contrast in the beginning. The reason I find it interesting is that Mongolians find their 'flexibility in timing' very normal, to the point that I am also finding it normal now.”
“If I had to wait for food to come in a restaurant, for no particular reason (and when all other people who came after me were already eating), I wouldn't bother to be agitated about it, anymore,” she said.
An American expat who’s been living in Mongolia for six years has a rather positive view about Mongolia's concept of time.
“I was once told that Mongolian people value the present. So when they're with you, they're completely focused on what's happening at that given moment. And for the most part, I find that to be true. It doesn't matter who I am meeting with, they'll stay with me until our conversation is finished. So when Mongolians are running late, I remind myself as to why.”
He stressed that it was a new culture that he just had to get used to because it was out of his control, especially in the countryside and remote communities.
I conducted a small survey among 50 random Mongolians to see how normal being late is for them. More than half of them, exactly 51 percent, responded that they aren’t punctual all the time - 42 percent said that they are late from time to time, five percent said that they are often late, and four percent replied that they are always late.
On average, these people go to appointments four minutes and 30 seconds to 14 minutes and 40 seconds later than promised. For both men and women, the time it takes for them to get ready and traffic are the main causes of their poor punctuality. One unexpected finding was that out of the 50 respondents, 11 percent of men and 42 percent of women answered that they are late because of other people, or because they know that the other person will come late.
One survey taker said, “I used to be very punctual, but now, I come late because I know my friend or acquaintance will not be on time. I waited nearly five hours once for a friend to come because they had something important to tell me. While waiting, I called her several times and she told me that she was just getting out of the house during the first phone call. For the next few calls, she told me that she was stuck in traffic and almost there but arrived five hours late. Later, she confessed that she’d actually gotten out of the house 40 minutes before arriving. Since then, I’ve been anticipating my partner’s time of arrival and going to venues accordingly. Most of the time, I’m the first to arrive.”
Some foreigners assumed that Mongolians are late because it has some kind of connection to the nomadic way of life. It’s partially true as Mongolians used to tell the time by observing the weather and the sun. It’s said that Mongolian nomads measured time with “before noon” and “afternoon” before adopting a new time system, which considered two hours of the standard time as one. These 12 “hours” of the day were named after the 12 Zodiac animals and it started from Rat hour, approximately 11:40 p.m. to 1:40 a.m. according to the standard time.
Even so, this is no excuse to disregard others’ time and be late. Time is priceless and irreversible. As a developing country, Mongolia needs to efficiently use every second it has to be able to catch up to developed countries. Punctuality plays a major role in first impressions and shows others your attitude towards your work and life. The reason Germans and the Japanese are so successful is partially linked to their punctuality and time management, as many entrepreneurs and businessmen believe.
Changing everyone’s sense of time and fixing their time management problems might be nearly impossible as there are too many other relating factors such as traffic, mentality, norm and weather. However, with a bit of social effort, there’s hope that each individual will reconsider their “flexible timing” and try to be on time. Most of all, it’s about setting a new habit of being punctual from now on. The value of time should be made clear to children and young people so that they can do better than previous generations. The habit of being late can be fixed if everyone tries to start their activities at the designated timing with maybe 15 minutes grace.
“From the young people I meet, I don't see them any different from the rest of the world. With time management to be specific, I'd think education is the answer. The more education they receive, the more they can differentiate a better way of life, including how to manage their time better,” Lee recommended.
Flexibility is essential sometimes, but not all the time. We just have to find the balance of everything.