Transnumbering – The Concept of Numbers Across Cultures, Part II

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Last week, I shared how a friend of mine was humiliated for transnumbering – an action I define as when someone who has two or more cultures within them uses numbers in a way that demonstrates that they are, intentionally or unintentionally, using all of their numerical repertoire.     This is similar to the concept of translanguaging, a concept widely accepted in Dual Language Education, to denote when individuals who have two or more languages within them use all of their linguistic repertoire, intentionally or unintentionally, when communicating.  Because of the overwhelming interest you, as readers, demonstrated in transnumbering, I decided to continue exploring this topic with you. 

The Microaggression

In my friend’s case, her transnumbering involved providing a phone number in the same cadence as phone numbers are usually given in Puerto Rico where she was born and raised.  The recipient of the phone number proceeded to publicly humiliate her with statements such as, “Who says that?” and “I have never heard anyone say a phone number like that.”  Last week, I wrote about how this microaggression stemmed from one of LaRay M. Barna’s (1997) 6 barriers to intercultural communication, namely, the assumption of similarities across cultures.  The aggressor in this case expected that in all cultures around the world, phone numbers be recited in the same pattern as we recite them in the United States, (Area Code, pause, three digits, pause, four digits).  When that did not happen, she proceeded to mock the person whose culture was different.  But the expectancy of similarities was not the only barrier to communication at play.  Also, among the six barriers to intercultural communication is the “tendency to evaluate,” and this clearly was a factor in the aggressor’s response.

The tendency to evaluate occurs when someone encounters a difference in cultural practices and proceeds to evaluate the “other” cultural practice as inferior rather than fully understand the thoughts, perspectives, or practices of the “other” through a global, anti bias lens.  In this circumstance, when the recipient of the phone number proceeded to judge, she prohibited herself from learning and understanding that the way numbers are communicated throughout the world are arbitrary and varied.  Instead, she proceeded to humiliate someone who was different from herself.  She discriminated against someone who was transnumbering.

Transnumbering and “Tendency to Evaluate”

In our last post, I mentioned a number of examples of transnumbering other than just reciting phone numbers.  For instance, I wrote about different uses of symbols used in math such as commas, periods, bars, and arcs.  We also talked about differences in algorithms used across cultures to find solutions to math problems.  But there are so many more examples of how cultures use numbers differently. One example of transnumbering that often results in the “tendency to evaluate” and subsequent microaggressions is the perception of time across various cultures.

Transnumbering and Time

The concept of time – a skill usually taught in 2nd grade –  is, in itself, inconsistent across cultures, so much so that there is an entire field that studies the perception of time. This field is called chronemics.  According to chronemic studies, cultural perceptions of time can be broadly divided into two groups, monochronic and polychronic (Hall, 1976 & Hall & Hall, 1990).  

Monochronic Cultures

The United States and other northern European nations are considered monochronic cultures.  In monochronic cultures, time is a linear, limited commodity.  I can “give you” fifteen minutes.  I “lose time” talking to someone.  Every second counts.  Time can be divided into segments and scheduled, and that schedule and the accompanying deadlines are sacred.  Because schedules are sacred, someone who interrupts others is a nuisance, so those in monochronic societies are concerned with disturbing others’ privacy and work time.  Trying to preserve time, we shut our doors to get work done and like to start and end meetings on time.  

While this system seems normal to those of us, (including myself), who grew up in this system, it is a learned behavior that originated in Northern Europe.  Germans, Scandinavians, and the British are also monochronic societies.  We are focused on the future and getting work done.  Therefore, we deem that it is important for us to be precise in teaching time.  We enforce deadlines without mercy. We are preparing students for the “real world,” at least the real, monochronic world.

Polychronic Cultures

On the other hand, polychronic societies are less obsessed with time and more interested in relationships.  In fact, the lack of concern with time precision can be seen embedded into some languages such as the language I speak at home, Tamil.  In Tamil, we don’t have times such as 3:05 or 3:40.  Between 3:00 and 4:00, we have 3:00, 3 1/4 (3:15 in English), 3 1/2 (3:30 in English), 3 3/4 (3:45 in English), and 4:00.  We round for any time in between these fifteen minute increments.

Starting and ending on time and meeting deadlines are not priorities in polychronic societies.  This lack of prioritizing schedules, without deeper understanding, usually causes those of us in monochronic societies to judge and evaluate the “other.”  After all, how can you be effective if you are not tied to time and deadlines?  It does not match our capitalistic axiom that time is money.  However, when understood at a deeper level, we can better recognize the benefits of polychronic cultures.

First, polychronic cultures place greater emphasis on getting the job done well and building relationships than on completing tasks quickly.  This does not mean that in monochronic cultures, we do not want to get the job done well or that we do not care about others, but that the capitalistic drive of monochronic cultures create differing priorities.  Let’s unpack this a little.  In the business world, those in polychronic societies do not end meetings when meetings are going well just because a schedule tells them to do so. Perhaps they are about to come to a conclusion that will support their business’s end goal.  It would not be efficient to have to stop and start again later.  Furthermore, to those from polychronic societies, it seems rude to run off in the middle of a conversation when it has not come to its natural ending point.  Hence, by following a rigid, monochronic business pattern, neither the job will be done well nor will participants be building relationships.  So people will finish their meetings and arrive sometimes substantially late to the next one.  

Similarly, those in polychronic societies will not meet a deadline if they can do the job better with a little more time.  Furthermore, even if there is a deadline for let’s say a report, if someone else needs support, those in polychronic societies will choose the human being rather than the report because in polychronic societies, relationships are valued above all else.  Hence, one benefit of polychronic societies is that there is a greater tendency to make lifetime friendships in polychronic societies unlike in monochronic societies where relationships tend to be short term.

How Do I Handle Time in the Classroom?

First, as always, instead of just getting angry when a student turns in homework late or parents don’t make it on time to a meeting, resist the urge to judge and be curious. Learn about your students’ cultures.  Never ever use terms like “Island Standard Time,” or “Colored Standard Time,” unless you are part of the culture to which these terms belong.  For instance, being part of the Indian diaspora, I can use the term, “Indian Standard Time,” but I can’t use the term “Island Standard Time” since I do not identify with island culture.

If your student does not know how to read time in a way that matches the way English-speaking cultures read time, teach them, but make clear that you understand and value the fact that students’ own modes of reading time are also valid and correct in other parts of the world.  This does not only apply to instances where there are more generalizations in time such as in Tamil, but also to societies that exclusively use military time. According to the Association of Legal Administrators, only 18 countries world-wide don’t use military time as their main mode of telling time.  Hence, students who immigrate from the majority of places around the world will need to be taught the US way of telling time along with the concepts of am and pm.  Additionally, even dates (another form of measuring time) are written differently around the world.  For instance, in many Asian and Pacific regions, dates are written as year-month-day and in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, they are written day-month-year.  This is in contrast to the U.S. system of month-day-year.  For instance, March 13th, 2020 would be written in the US as 03-12-2020, in Europe as 12-03-2020, and in some places in Asia as 2020-03-12.  This is another case where students may transnumber, so to help avoid confusion, direct instruction that is respectful of the home culture, will be required.  

Finally, if students and/or their families have a hard time adjusting to the American concept of deadlines, consider providing soft, earlier deadlines that allow for grace periods.  Have students who want their work to be perfect turn in rough drafts so that they can continue working on their assignments.  This way, you have something to grade.  Also, whenever possible, connect classroom assignments to opportunities that build relationships.  For examples, compare and contrast essays that require students to talk to their families in order to compare and contrast specific elements of cultures can eliminate some of the competing, cultural interests. Or a survey of family members’ preferences in foods may lead to a better understanding of graphing while acknowledging students’ cultural needs to build relationships. Finally, have honest conversations with your students and their families.  Determine if there is indeed a cultural conflict or something else going on.  If you determine that it is a cultural conflict having to do with perceptions of time, talk about how there is an expectation in the United States for deadlines to be followed although you, personally, can see benefits in both systems. Explain how meeting deadlines actually helps build relationships in the US and support families as they adjust to a culture different from their own.  After all, if we were to move across the world, wouldn’t we want the same support? 

Do you know of other ways that time is different across cultures, or do you have any other advice about transnumbering?  Please add them to the comments below.  

2 comments

  1. Hello, I appreciate your creation the term transnumbering. I have witnessed all of the examples you gave in your two posts, throughout my teaching years. One more example that I can think of is the dismay of many American teachers when the time comes for them to teach the Metric System of measurement. I believe that most of the countries (at least in Europe -where I lived- and South America -Argentina is my country of origin-) know it and use it. The “refusal” or lack of curiosity to learn it is, in my view, a way of dismissing and “othering”, instead of taking cultural responsibility and perhaps inquiring among the students, who I am quite sure, not only know it and use it, but would be able to help their peers understand it.

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    • Hi, Gabriella. Thank you for sharing. I absolutely agree. We are the only ones left who refuse to learn the metric system. The more we are willing to be curious and learn, the better we will become in accepting our students.

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