How much do they procrastinate in other countries?

A brief history of wasting time.
May 13 2008 3:57 PM

Procrastinators Without Borders

Do the Japanese waste more time than we do?

Read more from Slate's special issue on procrastination.

Our cultural preoccupations can sometimes be painfully obvious. We've sent droves of people abroad to study the sexual mores of other cultures, and pretty much no one to ask how long it takes them to get around to repairing a leaky faucet.

Take New Guinea: It's small and far away, but almost a century of anthropological research has yielded many interesting facts about the people who live there. We now know, for example, that they (or at least the ones who felt like talking to the white-man visitors) aren't huge fans of the missionary position. We also have a full photographic taxonomy of Papuan penis gourds.

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Did perhaps just one anthropologist ever think to ask a penis-gourd-wearer if he wakes up some days and thinks he's going to make a new penis gourd, but instead this happens and that happens, and making the new gourd just gets put off, along with everything else that he's supposed to be doing, until he feels terrible and the only option seems to be to move to a place where no one notices that his gourd is outmoded?

Doubtful. For you plucky grad students in search of untrampled academic terrain, I present the field of cross-cultural procrastination. Slacking off may not be as sexy as, well, sex, but (like sex) everyone seems to do it. The handful of cross-cultural studies that have been done suggest that procrastination is one of those concepts, like color or time, that occurs in other cultures, even if those other cultures have their own ways of seeing it and dealing with it.

There are two dominant modes when it comes to the study of cross-cultural procrastination. The first takes the form of the international managerial missive—an ancient narrative template that delineates the work and business practices of people from one culture, so that a person from another culture can do business with them. These are chatty, opinionated, and prone to generalizations. "Punctuality is the responsibility of the subordinate," writes corporate cultural training adviser George B. Whitfield III about Jakarta, Indonesia. "The higher the status of a person, the more he or she moves through life causing subordinates to adjust to and swirl around the superior's schedule."

The second mode seeks to quantify, in scholarly terms (i.e., with percentages), just who in the world procrastinates and for how long. The most wide-ranging of these efforts was published in the International Journal of Psychology in 1998. Leon Mann, a business-oriented behavioral scientist at the University of Melbourne, organized a project to discover "cross-cultural differences in self-reported decision-making style" among test subjects in six locations—three "individualistic English-speaking cultures" (the United States, Australia, and New Zealand) and three "collectivistic East Asian cultures" (Japan, Hong Kong, and Thailand). In other words, Mann and his team would hand out questionnaires to undergrads around the world and ask them how much they agreed (on a scale of one through five) with statements like, "I delay in making decisions until it is too late."

The researchers theorized that college students from the "collectivistic" cultures would put off making decisions for longer than those from "individualistic" ones. It turned out that the Japanese students had the highest (which is to say, the most procrastination-inclined) scores, followed by the Taiwanese, the students from Hong Kong, the Americans, the Australians, and the New Zealanders. The differences between the groups weren't quite as dramatic as Mann had hoped, but they were statistically significant.

Of course, how a student chooses to fill out a questionnaire may not reflect his or her true procrastination behavior. It's possible that the American students outdid the Australians and Kiwis simply by virtue of our drive toward compulsive self-disclosure. The world-class procrastinators of Japan might have inflated their scores out of a tendency to see self-criticism as a virtue.

Further research hasn't exactly resolved the question. American procrastination expert Joseph Ferrari did his own cross-cultural studies, with different results; he's adamant that there are no differences at all across international borders. So far, he's given a questionnaire very similar to the one used by Mann to people in America, Australia, Peru, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. And he's found no significant differences in procrastination scores, either between countries or genders.

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