Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

Cultural Differences and Time | Looking Beyond "Late" or "On Time"

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Mon, Feb 20, 2012 @ 08:23 AM

cultural differences and timeIf you have done a little traveling or if you have encountered a lot of people from different cultures in your everyday life here in Boston, you have probably created your own theories about cultural differences and time.

Your theory might sound something like this: "People from __x__ culture are always late and people from _y_ culture are usually on time".

Does this sound like your theory?

If so, you might want to look at time in a different way and consider not whether people from certain cultures tend to be early, late or on time, but how people actually use time differently in various parts of the world.

Can you imagine how much stress and confusion you can save yourself by having this knowledge when you work with your colleagues, clients or managers from different cultures?




Two Different Ways of Using Time:


Monochronic Cultures | One Thing at a Time:  In a monochronic culture like the United States or countries in northern Europe, time is a commodity. We have expressions like "waste time" or "lose time" or "time is money". As you have probably already figured out, because time is such a commodity, showing up late, especially for a meeting or a dinner, usually comes across as very disrespectful. A monochronic culture functions on clock time. People like to focus on one thing at a time and are usually concerned with completing objectives in a systematic way. In a meeting, it's often important to stick to the plan or agenda and not to get "off track" by talking about unrelated topics.


Polychronic Cultures | Many Things at the Same Time:  Polychronic cultures like southern Europe, Latin American countries and the Middle East, take a very different view towards time. People from these cultures often believe that time cannot be controlled and it is flexible. Days are planned based on events rather than the clock. For many people in these cultures, when one event is finished, it is time to start the next, regardless of what the clock says. In a business exchange in a polychronic culture, sticking to an agenda might not be very important. Instead, many tasks like building relationships, negotiating or problem solving, can be accomplished at the same time.


Why Does It Matter?


Now we know that cultural differences and time are rooted in a deeper issue than simply being late or on time. But why is this knowledge really important if you are working with people form different cultures? Here are some scenarios where this knowledge could help:


  • Deadlines: What does a deadline really mean to you? Is it a promise that the work will be done by a certain time? Or is it a guess, an estimate, or maybe a hope that it will be done by a specific date? What happens if you and your manager have different assumptions about what " the project will be completed by April 16th" really means?.


  • Dining with Colleagues: In the US, business decisions are usually made during a meeting, at the workplace. In contrast, in some polychronic cultures, like Japan, the real business takes place over dinner and drinks, hours after the workday ends. Not knowing this and declining an offer from your Japanese colleagues to join them for dinner could cause you to lose a valuable opportunity to strengthen business relationships and get important things done.


  • Organizing and Planning a Meeting: If you have a more polychronic view toward time, you might be surprised when your American colleagues in New York or Boston ask you to plan the meeting and expect the meeting to follow the agenda without getting "off topic".


  • Maintaining Relationships: When we are not aware of cultural differences like the use of time, it can be so easy to say that our colleagues from another culture are " disrespectful", "disorganized", "boring" or "rigid". To avoid mistaking a cultural difference for a personality or character issue, try to see time from your colleagues point of view. You will save yourself a lot of stress and you will have an easier time maintaining your important relationships.



 Practical Tips for your Life in the U.S.





Source: Interchange Institute, Crossing Cultures with Competence

Topics: Cultural Competence

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