Crosscultural skills

Different time concepts in global business

The sense of time and the pace of work vary from country to country. What role play the different time concepts and their cultural background in international project cooperations?

time concepts
Photo by Luis Cortes on Unsplash

“Westerners have all the watches, but we have all the time,” says an African proverb. Time only passes constantly as long as you read it from a clock. But as soon as we engage in various activities and no longer look at the clock, its unsteady character becomes apparent. Sometimes time seems to stretch and sometimes it just races away. Time is objectively measurable, but our sense of time is subjective.

According to psychological studies, human time consciousness consists of two components: One is the experience of the present, the other is the feeling of time progressing. Cross-cultural studies show that people perceive about three seconds as present. We live with a natural sense of time, but due to our cultural background we create units, such as seconds or minutes, or simply have developed a gut feeling: “This takes too long for me”. We value time. However, this is different in every culture.

Origin of the Western idea of time

Today’s time concept in the Western world is closely linked to the industrial revolution, to capitalism, but also to Protestantism, reinforced by the Calvinists. The Dutch and the English-American Puritans developed a doctrine of salvation, which led to a performance-oriented basic concept of work. The systematic use of the daily available time as well as the life time as such was given a very high value. By striving to achieve, pious people had to prove that they were meant to reach the Kingdom of Heaven. To stop striving, to waste time, however, was in principle the most serious of all sins.

Against this background, Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, coined the well-known sentence “Time is money”. This doctrine of the industrial age ultimately led to the dictatorship of the clock, be it in the form of a time stamp clock in the factory or the watch of the superior. In Germany, for example, this dependence on time was also combined with the Prussian virtues of diligence, discipline and sense of order. Even today, people who work hard, disciplined and long hours are considered potentially successful in their jobs. Arriving on time in the morning is a must. But those who go home on time can neither be particularly good nor sufficiently industrious and ambitious. It is generally not expected, that someone may have done an excellent job and therefore goes home early with a clear conscience!

However, there are very different ideas of time in other cultures. A literary theme, for example, is the traveller who travels from Western Europe to Southern or Eastern Europe, or even to the Arab world, and realises on the way that time seems to pass more slowly the further south or east he/she goes. How can that be?

Monochronic or polychronic?

Crosscultural research offers some interesting insights into the different time concepts in cultures around the world. The British scientist Edward T. Hall, for example, distinguishes between monochronic and polychronic cultures.

For monochronic cultures Western Europeans and US-Americans, time equals the duration between two points. You plan into time and set closing dates. Deadlines are strictly adhered to. Time is understood as a linear continuum divided into equal units. Time can be “cut into slices”. Time runs out, time is always the same and what is gone is gone. 

Time also means to develop forward. One distinguishes strongly between past, present and future, whereby the emphasis lies on the future. The tolerance towards disturbances in the course of time is low, because unused time is regarded as a waste of time and thus as a loss, which can drag itself far into the planned future. Time is a valuable commodity. “Time is money!”

In polychronic cultures (e.g. Asia, Arab world, Southern Europe), actions are drawn across different levels, several of which can always be pursued simultaneously. There is a high degree of temporal flexibility, what the clock indicates is often a minor matter. Interruptions during one action are tolerated because you can quickly switch to another action.

For example, when shopping in a traditional Italian butcher’s shop, you will observe how the shop assistant behind the counter serves several customers at the same time. If the first customer in the queue wants Milanese salami, she will ask whether any other customer wants this salami too. Then she will cut salami in different quantities for several customers. The first customer waits patiently until she has finished. 

A monochronic German shop assistant, who is used to serve one customer at a time, would soon be hopelessly overwhelmed when working in an Italian shop with this polychronic system. A German customer would feel neglected if they had to wait until the shop assistant has finished cutting salami for all the other customers who came in later. In polychronic cultures though, this parallelism of actions is not a problem at all. The first customer will probably pass the time by having a conversation with another customer.

Cyclic time

In Asia and Africa, on the other hand, time is also cyclical. Here, the focus is on the cycle of nature, everything repeats itself, everything returns: day and night, the seasons and also life in the form of rebirths. Dealing with time is therefore much more relaxed: “Tomorrow is another day.” Past time is experienced neither as a loss nor as a waste. Above all, people live in the present and take things as they come. Little is planned for the future.

Time and social orientation

But there is another cultural imprint that separates the Western culture from the world to the south and the east. People with a more linear temporal thinking usually have an individualistic orientation. If people attach more importance to performance, they develop to be more egocentric. Their focus on their own performance leads to a time-is-money-attitude, which in turn leads to the compulsion to make the most of every moment. Hence, there is less time left for interpersonal relationships.

Circular thinking, on the other hand, is more to be found in collectivist-oriented societies. People with a collectivist orientation are usually integrated into a large family system, in which community thinking has a high value. Here, more value is placed on belonging than on individual performance. This is why people of these cultures can “afford” a more relaxed attitude towards the present time. The principle “time is money” can be reformulated into “community needs time”.

This can be seen very clearly in everyday communication patterns. When, for example, a German business man calls a business partner, he usually briefly says his name and comes straight to the point. However, when a Southern European calls, he always asks first: “How are you? What are you doing?” The actual reason for the call is only given after a while. They take time for a relationship-oriented conversation. The first communication style is linear and direct and may take only a minute, the second one is circular and indirect – and lasts longer.

Who needs punctuality?

Punctuality has a completely different significance in different cultures and time concepts as well. If a business partner came three hours late for an appointment without prior excuse, this would be seen as very rude by Germans, Swiss or Swedes.

In Indonesia, however, “jam karet”, the “rubber time”, applies. Time is elastic. If the business partner is late because he happened to meet an old acquaintance on the way, this lucky coincidence is given a higher priority than the lapse of time according to the clock. One can still go to the scheduled appointment some time later, but one meets this old friend only now in this moment. The situation is valued differently, one does not simply brushes off the acquaintance just because something else was written in the diary. From an Indonesian perspecive, this has nothing to do with rudeness or disdain for the waiting persons. They will understand, because in Indonesia there is always room for the unforeseen. Time and punctuality are subordinated to the events of the day. The here and now, the present, is what counts most.

The German, Swiss or Swedish business partner with their monochronic time structure, on the other hand, look indignantly at their ruptured daily schedule, the lost time and perceive this as a burden. If they had met an old acquaintance themselves on the way to the business appointment, they probably would have said: “What a coincidence to see you after all these years. Unfortunately, I don’t have time at the moment, I urgently need to go to a meeting. Let’s talk on the phone sometime! I’ll call you when there’s more time”. Sadly, it is very likely that the right moment to phone each other never comes. 

In monochronic countries, only small children treat themselves to the luxury of wasting time when they let themselves drift while playing on their own. Over the years, however, the education takes place in which they learn to postpone their needs and subordinate themselves to more important things in life. “Not now, maybe later!” – a reaction that is firmly anchored in their cultural imprint.

On the other hand, Asian, Russian or Southern European business partners, would find it extremely rude if they arrived at the conference room four hours late due to their flight being delayed, and were then more or less ignored by their monochromic business partners, who now have another important meeting scheduled that they think they can’t cancel. The visitors with a polychronic time structure perceive this “stubborn” behaviour according to the appointment calendar as a disregard for their person. They are here now, ready to meet. The opportunity to talk to each other is more important than what is on the agenda. Paper is patient, the here and now is precious.

Status determines who waits

While an Indonesian probably doesn’t mind waiting for his interlocutor, the Russian businessman will link the fact of waiting with the question of status. In many business cultures, people are deliberately left waiting in the conference room to demonstrate personal power. In that case, the status in the social hierarchy determines who has to wait patiently and who can afford to be late.

In the same way, it can be regarded as appreciation when a business partner gives you his time and his full attention. However, in polychronic cultures, where people do many things at once, business people will read e-mails and send text messages during meetings or presentations. This lack of attention can then easily be interpreted as disregard, even though it is simply a form of multi-tasking.

Stress versus boredom

In Western business cultures, a lack of time can also have an implication: Those who have little time are considered successful and in demand. The way of life of those who do not find this agitation desirable, however, is negatively seen. This is why people tend to show to the outside world that they are always busy. At the same time, too much time on one’s hands would inevitably lead to boredom, also a negatively perceived condition. Therefore, free time is usually filled with activities.

In East Asia, however, a feeling of timelessness, “the nirvana”, is often strived for. A Zen master, experienced in meditation, was once asked by a Westerner why he radiated so much peace and strength despite his many tasks and did not seem stressed at all? He replied: “When I stand, I stand. When I sit, I sit. When I eat, I eat”. The Westerner cut him short and said, “That’s what we’re doing as well. But what else do you do?” But the Zen master answered: “No. When you sit, you already stand. When you stand, you already run. When you run, you have already reached your destination.”

Thinking with foresight versus improvisational talent

The structure of the modern Western world promotes thinking with foresight. People always plan for the future, predict developments and pursue career paths. Successful managers act proactively. Accordingly, the present is always hectic. A constant lack of time makes serenity almost impossible. Although there is a general trend of “deceleration”, this is actually only reserved for leisure time.

In polychronic cultures, less planning takes place because less attention is paid to the future. Living in the here and now, means to deal with problems as they come. Therefore, a talent for improvisation and a high degree of flexibility are qualities that make an outstanding leader.

Different time concepts in international business

In a collaboration between monochronic and polychronic team members, misunderstandings due to their differing time concepts are inevitable. While the monochronic colleagues want to plan everything carefully and progress as quickly as possible, the polychromic team members prefer to plan less and to react spontaneously to any challenge. In the Western working world, determination and linear time thinking triumph. In many places in the Eastern working world, there is less speed.

A balanced time rhythm, in which the culture of the moment is counterbalancing planning and performing, is certainly a desirable success factor in international business.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

At a glance

  • How we value time is different in every culture.
  • In the Western world, the systematic use of the daily available time was given a very high value.
  • There are very different ideas of time in other cultures.
  • In monochronic cultures, time is understood as a linear continuum divided into equal units.
  • In polychronic cultures, actions can be pursued simultaneously. There is a high degree of temporal flexibility.
  • Time can be seen cyclical. Everything repeats itself, everything returns.
  • Punctuality has a completely different significance in different cultures.
  • Status can determine who has to wait and who lets others wait.
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