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Future & Past Orientation

Future & Past Orientation

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the cultural worldview spectrum re: the effect or relevance of past relationships, events, or traditions to focus on future events, situations, or actions.

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Future/Past Orientation

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One way to view time is on a continuum, past, present, and future. Different cultures take this time continuum and perceive it, orient themselves to it differently. And it's one of the elements that's helpful to understand when we're looking to gain insight into different cultures' worldviews. I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you about orientation, past orientation, future orientation, and the worldview positions that different cultures take.

So what do I mean by future orientation and past orientation? Well, future orientation refers to a culture's willingness to make changes that perhaps don't fit with past norms or traditions, so to be able to move into the future without having to take that past into account, whereas a past orientation reflects the degree of attachment that a culture has to their past or to existing traditions and norms. And changes in the future need to fit with the past. So there is that continuity from past to future.

So cultures differ in their world view position on this, how they focus on the future. Are they willing to break with history, or must there be precedent when you're making a change for the future that accounts for the past. Now, of course, not everyone in the culture would ascribe exactly the same way to this world view. But in general these are broad tendencies that cultures can reflect.

So we'll give you some examples here of how these different orientations could be expressed. A culture that has an orientation to the past would have a reverence for the elders, perhaps even veneration for ancestors, a great sense of history, and a view to historical things that happened in the past and how they weigh in on the present. I know there's a Native American tribe that talked about any action you took you had to think in terms of seven generations. So clearly they were aware of the effect of what we do now on the future and how past actions will reverberate, so this idea of seven generations. It reflects long term thinking.

So anything you do needs to be thought out long term in terms of results, whereas a culture that is more future oriented will perhaps focus more on short term gains, willing to take risks, make gains now for the short term. And there's not that strong sense of the tie to the past or how actions might reverberate into the future. These cultures tend to have a strong youth culture as opposed to venerating elders. So it's youth, risk, new ideas, that's a culture that expresses and celebrates those elements if they are future oriented.

So when it comes to making change, cultures take different points of view. You're working together, and say you're in a managerial or business situation where you want to work on a project, you have plans or a proposal. You will need to take into account, if you're working with a culture that's coming from a past orientation, how any actions might relate to the future in that do they break with the past, is there an historical imperatives here, may have to listen to discussions of history of the past, things that someone with a future orientation may not be accustomed to doing. You may need to spend more time taking a look at how everything will hold together. Does it fit with traditions of the past? There'd be a careful scrutiny of any kind of proposal that would require change going forward. So that would be an example of how this could play out in, say, a business situation.

In a conflict situation you may find that before you could move forward into any resolution to the future, there may need to be apologies or restitution for past wrongs. So that focus on the past, once again, would come into play here in the resolving of any kind of a conflict, and being aware of how, once again, the strong relationship between the past, the present, and the future plays into any sort of action or situation that could surface as a tangible issue within the conflict discussion. So once again, different cultures take different worldview positions on how they perceive the future, how willing they are to move into the future, particularly if it involves any sort of a break with history. So I've enjoyed being part of this tutorial with you, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
Future Orientation

A culture's degree of willingness to make changes that do not "fit" with past events, traditions, or norms.

Past Orientation

A culture's degree of attachment to past or existing events, traditions, or norms, making future changes contingent upon fitting with past.