The Sun Dial and the Dentist – The Story of a Conflict

"Dentist examining child's teeth. Interio...
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As much as I pride myself on being a creature that is not “time bound” there are those moments when I wish that I operated more efficiently….in other words, I’m not always proud of being late.

Culturally based views of time have been the impetus for millions of cross-cultural conflicts – probably since the beginning of time. The conflicts are not pretty. The people on the “mañana” and “bukra” side juxtaposed between those with Swiss watches and German minds. The sun dials vs. the Swiss watches. Empires can rise and fall based on views of time, business deals can perish, relationships can sour, all because of time.

I am a sun-dial. I have already confessed to this in an earlier post. I have a loose view of time and one not-so-pretty conflict came at the dentist office.

To get the full picture of this story, one has to appreciate two things – how much I love being a sun-dial and how much I despise the dentist. When I am told to hurry and be on time, I am paralyzed. I have also had 5 babies naturally, coping with the discomfort of labor through good breathing and good support. I would rather have 15 babies naturally than ever have to go to the dentist. I realize that the word despise is not weighty enough for the way I feel. That dreaded question: “Did you floss?” And of course I answer yes, and with one look, they know that I’m lying.

But on to the story. It started with the dentist’s able assistant Debbie. She was perfect. Her teeth were even more perfect. They were the straightest, whitest, teeth I have ever seen. And I’ve lived in Arizona where Botox and white teeth are fairly common. Read on…..

“I’m Late” I announced rushing through the doors to the dentist’s office.“Yes you are” was the curt reply from Debbie.“Am I quite late or just a bit late” I was desperate to justify my ‘lateness’.

You are late”.  Three words from Debbie. She was diligent, she was beautiful and she had pearly white, straight teeth.  My teeth are somewhat crooked and not so white and somehow all this made my lateness worse.  I began to babble and felt myself growing hot trying to explain cross-cultural views of time. This was not the time or venue for a teaching moment.

This scenario had happened several times and although I wanted Debbie’s approval it was not going to come until I arrived on time.

I found that when I most wanted to get approval from this strange world filled with unrecognized cues and cultural nuance, I blew it even more.  Like being on time, saying the right thing, ordering coffee. All seemingly simple, but like bringing snacks for soccer games, I would panic. For instance, in America you are supposed to deflect compliments. I didn’t know this. When someone gave me a compliment on what I was wearing I would tell them where I got it and how much it cost. In America when you are offered something to eat and you refuse, you are not usually offered it again. In the places where I lived you always refused the first time, and the second, and usually said “Yes, if it’s not too much trouble” the third time around. In America you come on time.

Like most conflicts we were both convinced that we were correct. She told me that I “was in Rome and should do as the Romans” to which I responded “But I’m an Egyptian in a Roman empire!” and she didn’t think I was funny.  So we did what is important in cross-cultural conflict: We negotiated.   Like all resolution of cross-cultural conflict, it took coming to an agreement in the middle. In this case the “middle” was the little reminder card that comes from my dentist letting me know that the exciting appointment is coming up.  She agreed to set my time on the reminder card as a half hour earlier than it actually was.  The first time using the system I was early. I would have been twenty minutes late if it was the real time but because the reminder told me that the appointment was earlier I arrived 10 minutes early. She was pleased and I was delighted.  It worked well for a time.  Then I figured out the system, arrived late, and war broke out.

Time for another round of peace negotiations between Debbie and I. What will the middle look like this time?  No wonder the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so complicated.  It’s about a far more than teeth and time.

37 thoughts on “The Sun Dial and the Dentist – The Story of a Conflict

  1. I love this blog entry. I still remember a class session from 7th grade English when Mr Nygren read us an amusing short–very short–story, written in the first person, giving the thoughts of a man as he visited the dentist. And this was from the pre-anesthetic days, when I presume there was occasion to greater anxiety than is warranted nowadays. I also remember one fine summer day in Murree as my mother and I walked through the very bottom of the Lower Bazaar and looked into one of the desi dentist shops–with the Godzilla-sized dentures painted on the storefront sign–and to my surprise saw a missionary gentleman sitting in the chair as the dentist operated his antiquated foot-powered drill. My mother and I were both agreed that the patient probably would never tell his wife where he’d been–and we didn’t tell her either. My father once visited a desi dentist in Pindi and he pulled out a used electric toothbrush to clean my father’s teeth.

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    1. Jason – this reminded me of the book Caravan set in Afghanistan. Do you remember the part with the dentist?! He had worked in Nazi Germany and had then set up a makeshift office in Afghanistan. I love these stories you remember but especially the one where you saw the missionary gentleman having his teeth worked on with the foot drill. So funny. The Lower Bazaar held stories of many kinds and all of them true.
      Thanks so much for dropping by!

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  2. Back when we were working with international students, we figured out a multi-dimensional version of your negotiated settlement with Debbie: If dinner was to be at 7, we’d tell the Japanese, Germans (and Americans) to come at 7; Middle Easterners, Indians and Pakistanis, 6:30; South Americans, 6. Africans – we just hoped they showed up sometime that night, and not the next … :) [but we loved them all!]

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    1. But what’s really annoying to me now is to go to the Philippines or Kenya and have them harassing ME for being late… why do we export the most obnoxious parts of our own culture?

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    2. I love this strategy! Brilliant and I think we will try it. I’ll never forget how frustrated I got when we first moved to Essex. We held this dessert night for our church and a single woman came 1/2 hour early and proceeded to watch me get ready and comment on my kids…..so not right!

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    1. Thanks so much – for years I’ve tried to articulate the time thing and this usually ended in frustration. When I wrote the post that accompanies this called The Sun Dial and the Swiss Watch I knew I had identified something that would work for me! Whether sun dial or Swiss watch – I hope you have a great day.

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  3. I used to be very rigid about people being on time and I held myself to very high standards about appointments and deadlines. Now that I’ve become somewhat of a grasshopper here on our little ranch, I lose track of time and find myself fairly lax about getting to appointments early like I used to. Most occasions, I arrived just on time! In Oklahoma people rarely get bent out of shape if someone is a little bit late. We say people go by “Indian time” referencing the Native American people and their unhurried pace. But then there is the song by Don Williams called, “Living on Tulsa Time”, so maybe it is just the Okie way of life!

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    1. So what has it been like for you transitioning to a different view? Did it take a good amount of time for you to become comfortable with a more lax view? It’s fascinating to me that those who hold being “on time” valuable feel like it’s so rude of others to be late and those who hold a view that the event is more important find it rude when people come “early”…it’s just one more area of seeing how vastly different cultural views are and how tightly we hold them! Marilyn Gardner Sent from my iPhone

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      1. Early, early! That is my biggest fear and something that seems to happen. Yikes! I am not ready until it is time or a few minutes after, but my door is open if they don’t mind the mess. But why do people show up 30 minutes early?! or worse last week for our home group a gentleman who has been coming for a year showed up an HOUR EARLY! What was he thinking? :-) But I do admit that sometimes we as americans fill our schedule up so tightly that people cease to matter and we are rushing off to the next thing to check off. I had worked for a while with Burundian refugees and I could stop by to say hi anytime and sit awhile with them. I think there was a day when that, too, was true here in the states. “…how tightly we hold them” yes, and maybe with an attitude that our way is the right way, our culture is the right culture….hmmm Where did graciousness go in all this? We should maybe learn from those who are more event oriented as they seem to have less stress and stress related illness in their lives :-)

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  4. This is a tough one. I seem to live on the edge always thinking I can get more done, and that is why I am late or barely somewhere on time. I cannot claim culture there. But sometimes, though it is our culture to be punctual, I taught my kids, when they were young,to be mindful of other’s time. If I look at it as not robbing another of their time, it makes me more thoughtful towards appointments. If I consider that I might put someone out, make them miss an appointment or plane or ?,or make them sit idly waiting for me it puts a new twist on it. When I am with my Sudanese or Egyptian friends I need to realize that it is not so much the time I agree to meet, they do look for me on time, but it is the time I allow after an event to sit awhile and not rush off to the next thing.

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    1. I wrote a post a long time ago called “Living Intentionally and Flexibly”. It was based off some people who worked in Jordan and talked about these 2 working in concert so that we are intentional about our purpose but flexible enough to allow for interruptions, specifically interruptions of people. It has always made so much sense to me.

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  5. Time. What is time? I nearly drove myself insane in Pakistan when I invaribly showed up at social events promptly. By the time other guests arrived, I was ready to leave, having been sitting around for an hour or so. Even the hostesses were not ready at the specified time. Finally a very close Pakistani friend told me that I needed to understand the local culture. Four o’clock on the invitation really meant 5 o’clock or even half past five! That was Pakistani time and I adjusted. Nevertheless, I expected my western colleagues to operate on western time. Being wired for punctuality and little patience for habitual latecomers, I’m still learning to accommodate (with grace I hope) those who consider their time more important. Rachel D, you struck a chord. Thanks.

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    1. What a great testimonial Bettie! And to have your Pakistani friend be your cultural broker saved you from so much frustration I am sure. Did you adjust to the point that you don’t expect people to be on time in America? That is one of my problems – I never expect people to be on time here so they walk in and I’m not ready!! Or rather – my pride is not ready. I want to seem totally prepared…..that’s another issue.

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      1. Read my last 2 lines Marilyn. I’m afraid I still expect people to be on time, graciously allowing up to 10-15 minutes past the scheduled time. Respect for the other person’s time is just plain common courtesy. There is nothing wrong with punctuality. In fact, being punctual allows me more time to smell the roses. Someone once gave me some good advice: “Do what you have to do first and then you’ll have the time to do what you want to do.” Honoring another person’s time is something I have to do!

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    2. In SE Asia punctuality is not adhered to – in fact they have an expression for it called “Jam Karat” (pronounced as jahm kahraht – long ‘a’ sound) which means “rubber time”. Boarding school demanded punctuality – but life outside the school was fluid…more flexible. For me – this dual time living has allowed me to understand the frustrations felt on both sides. I arrive on time to appts (sometimes even a little early (waiting gives me a chance to study others in the waiting room) .

      Bettie – my f-i-l used to quote “Do what you have to do first, THEN do what you want to do next” – drove me crazy the first few years of marriage because I couldn’t understand how it related to *time*.

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  6. The other thing about time is the way it denotes power. People in positions in power are allowed to be late, to a point, even in the U.S. If I show up late to a dental appointment, I’m scolded, but if they’re running 30 minutes behind (and they often are because of overscheduling), I’m expected to put up with it. Being 10 minutes late to nearly everything is one way to subvert authority.

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    1. Rachel this is so right on! I almost started crying at a doctors office one day because I had to wait so long and had left work so early. I know this plays into some of my subconscious decisions about timeliness. Thanks for this comment and reminder of the power piece.

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  7. Wonderful, I guess I am a fusion of a Swiss-watch and a sun-dial. At work, I like to be punctual. At home, I like to take my time. At work, it frustrates me when people are late for meetings or other professional tasks. Inadvertently the ones being on time are being punished by having to stay late or having to complete tasks in their personal time. After work, I like to relax and enjoy every moment thereof. Conflicts can be prevented as long as one can strike a happy balance. Maybe balance is needed in politics.

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  8. I hear you! My daughter wrote a bog post once in which she mentioned our family was always late for everything so we actually followed MST, our own standard time that was after everyone else. I cannot understand hurry but on the other hand I can understand Debbie. Have had too many dentists appointments not to understand Debbie.
    Resolving any conflict requires seeing the other’s point of view, yes including the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Walking in their shoes for a while. Debbie is bound by the limitations of her job from putting on your shoes, so you will have to put hers on instead.
    We are invariably late for our dentists appointments. Their office always calls a few times so it becomes even worse. My dentists seem to have a policy, if you are late you wait, they just take the next patient. Sometimes the next patient has not come in so the slot is wasted, which is not good and upsets them.

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      1. As someone who works in a business that makes appointments, I can sympathize with Debbie. If one client comes in late and the next one early, it puts tremendous pressure on me that I can’t serve both at the same time. We have lost customers that way. In this down economy, when small businesses are barely holding on, that matters. I really appreciate clients who call ahead when they are running late and are flexible enough to reschedule if necessary.

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      2. Good to have this other perspective and thanks for sharing. It’s true that small businesses could potentially lose out and I must admit that I am becoming so much better. I do think a looser view of time is important in some areas, particularly when traveling over and crossing into other cultural zones. Thanks for coming by!

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  9. Thanks for the Friday morning smiles, Dear Sun Dial!! May the cross-cultural stories continue to charm and teach and help to show us who we all are and that differences can be sweet. (Except dentists won’t like the sweet part!)

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  10. I laughed as I read your pose, Marilyn. I’m totally the opposite – I’ve absorbed alot of my culture, I suppose. I have to be somewhere at *least* 20 minutes early. But I have several friends of German background, and regardless of whether I said we needed to be somewhere urgently, they always have all the time in the world … and as much as I HATE to be late, they just soak up life, noticing all the details. I miss alot in my hurry to get places on time.
    I think your way is by far better … because you don’t get tangled up in the rat-race of life here. ;)

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    1. I find that depending on the situation I have that bit of stress about being late but it’s almost like this mental block where I can’t be on time so not sure I’m stopping to enjoy life or just disorganized!! Love your description of your German friends! You really ate a Swiss watch!

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  11. I tend to be more of a swisswatch, but I have mellowed. Having my Kindle app on the iPad and portable broadband makes waiting less stressful. Not to mention in my older age I often find the faster I go, the more behind I get. As for the dentist, two words: nitrous oxide.

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  12. I have recently learned that you are supposed to take your baby to the dentist when their first tooth erupts!! Who knew?! maybe that is our problem….

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