Wrong. Perceptions of time are something that are deeply entrenched in culture and tradition meaning that they can become stumbling blocks when you are working with international teams. Whole projects can be derailed or negotiations fail due to clashing understandings of what timing plans and deadlines actually mean. When we travel or move to other countries we cannot assume that our assumptions are known or accepted as the norm there.

Chronemics: I learnt that word when I was searching for extra information to help me write this. It’s the study of the use of time, and the way that time is perceived and valued by individuals and cultures. These time perceptions include things like willingness to wait, approaches to face-to-face interactions, setting up and conducting business appointments, and reactions to time pressure. This concept is also introduced as the 8th scale in The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.

Monochronic vs Polychronic

Academics differentiate between monochronic cultures (= those who deal with one event at a time basically in a linear way) and polychronic cultures (= those who deal with several events at any one time). Examples of monochronic cultures would be North America, Northern and Central Europe whilst the Mediterranean region, South America, Africa and most of Asia count as polychronic. The “polychronic” group may also be further divided to include the “subgroup” of cultures whose time as Cyclic – mostly in Asia.

Generally, we each take our own culture as the benchmark for the lens through which we view the world and judge their approach to time. As with any aspects of international business, it’s risky to assume that our view is the “correct” or better one…

Monochronism (= linear approach to time)

Here time is viewed as the most valuable thing we have. It is perceived as a tangible gift of immeasurable value. Schedules are important and punctuality and preciseness are virtues. It is a linear approach. Monochronic cultures emphasise the importance of “doing things” and being productive. 

“Be on time”

“Use your time efficiently”

“Plan and manage your time so as not to waste any of it”

For an employee who feels he can’t meet the required deadlines, it can feel incredibly stressful.

Polychronism (= flexible)

In these cultures, several events may happen simultaneously. Time is less tangible. The natural rhythms of nature and the seasons determine the timing of certain events. eg annual festivals may depend on the lunar calendar or the harvest season. Multitasking is valued and people focus less on schedules and prioritise instead interpersonal relationships.

This approach to time is more flexible, perhaps because many cultures accept that life is not predictable and therefore precise scheduling is not so important. However, time used for building interpersonal relationships is always worthwhile. “Being” rather than “doing.”

Cyclic time

Westerners often expect an Asian to make a quick decision or to treat a current deal on its present merits, irrespective of what has happened in the past. Asians usually won’t do this. The past provides the contextual background to the present decision. Asians do not see time as racing away unused in a linear future, but coming around again in a circle, where the same opportunities, risks, and dangers will re-present themselves when people are so many days, weeks or months wiser. The Chinese, like most Asians, “walk around the pool” in order to make well-considered decisions.

Arriving on time for meetings is important – people value punctuality. Allow enough time for the meeting itself though and don’t rush coming to the point. First, you need to spend some time making small talk and working on the relationship. Decisions may take longer to be reached but will be well considered.

I will talk more about this in a later post.

Time is spent, saved or wastedTime is fluid and flexibleTime is circular and repetitive
works sequentiallymultitaskinglong period of contemplation and reflection for tasks and decisions
focuses on task within a certain timeframefocuses on the relationships connected with the tasksfocuses on the long term for both tasks and relationships
separates work from family/social lifesees work, family and social life as oneAll people and events are connected
Control time – rigid schedulereacts to what the day bringsbelieves that life controls time
looks to the futurefocuses on the presentfocuses on the past (context for present & future)
UK, USA, Northern Europe, Germanic culturesSouthern Europeans, Mediterranean cultures, Arab cultural group, Philippines, South AmericaAfrica, China, South Korea, Japan, Native Americans
Comparison of different approaches to time

Potential for conflict

For example, who decides when is someone late or on time for a meeting?

A Brazilian businessman doing business with the US might feel that the US American was being rude by getting straight down to business. Conversely, the Brazilian would prefer to discuss a little about life before starting on the meeting topics.

A German doing business anywhere in the Arab world might feel that the partner was showing no respect by starting the meeting late, taking phone calls in the middle or accepting interruptions to sign bank documents or contracts. These kinds of cultural misunderstandings can have negative effects on the success of a business relationship. I remember being in Cairo with a colleague. He found it infuriating that, “we’ll pick you up at 9 in the morning”, usually meant the partner arrived somewhere closer to 10:30. In actual fact, for me the simplest solution was just to stay in my room doing tasks such as emails. When the partner arrived, I’d get a call from the lobby telling me, and wouldn’t be pacing around the lobby fretting & running up a phone bill.

People in North America and the northern half of Europe usually have a rigid conception of time, and professional and social life is organised accordingly. If you don’t respect the right time for a specific activity (eg work vs private life) or someone else’s time it’s perceived as bad behaviour, selfish and rude. The time aspect dominates.

A person living in a polychronic culture such as Israel may not find it so important to keep an appointment or deadline. Here, projects can undergo important changes right up until the last minute (driving the colleagues from monochronic cultures crazy). 

Difficult for both groups (linear vs flexible) to work well together

My husband and I once sat on a minibus in Jordan for over an hour, squashed in with 2 rucksacks and what felt like a lot of people (but obviously not enough for the driver!). Nobody could tell us when the bus would leave, as there was no published timetable so we didn’t dare to get out. Instead, the bus driver only got in and started his engine (& the air-con!) once the bus was full. This attitude of “reacting when a specific event happens” can be infuriating to the more plan-oriented on any team. It can be especially difficult in project management or as an expat manager of a team.

A Swiss manager might not understand why his Turkish business partner doesn’t see the need to make a detailed 5 year plan for a project. The Turkish investor sees no point in doing this as he knows that many factors will have changed before the 5 years are reached. For him it would be more important to set milestones linked to targets rather than anchored in the timescale.

How can I practically work?

So, what concrete steps can you take when working with international teams to ensure that cultural conflict doesn’t derail the achievement of the mutual goals?

Don’t assume or stereotype

Make sure that you get to know people well as individuals. Whilst there may be certain characteristics that apply to a cultural group, it’s important to avoid stereotyping people.

Another aspect of this is that we often assume that our personal cultural norm is the “natural” way of seeing things. Don’t just take the position, “I’m right and the others are wrong”. Just because a partner or colleague acts on a different time scale doesn’t make them lazy or aggressive.

Respect the other culture

For anyone from a flexible time culture working in northern Europe or the US, you should understand that telling someone the meeting starts at 9am, means that they will be there at 8:55. By 9 they will be expecting to start & by 9:15 they will be pacing up and down wondering where the others are and feeling that their rudeness is disrespectful.

For a UK sales manager working in South America, it’s necessary to understand that “we’ll send you the budget on Thursday” probably means that it’ll be there on Monday morning. That gives you two options:
1) you give the partner a “window” of a couple of days (I need it in the 2nd half of next week) or
2) you set an earlier deadline with the external partner than you have from your internal stakeholders
Accepting that a combination of these two will bring a mutually satisfactory result is probably the best approach.

Time and relationships

Is it important for the team members to establish their relationships before they can begin effectively working together? Or do they focus more on tasks and prefer to build relationships as they go along?

A Vietnamese or a Mexican probably will prefer to spend time getting to know the business partner or team colleagues. The task will proceed swiftly once he feels comfortable working with the others. A Canadian however may wish to get “straight to business” and will do the relationship building along the way. In both examples, relationships and achieving the task are important, but the timeline details look quite different.

How can I run a meeting?

It can be really hard to run a meeting if half the team expect to begin promptly with no interruptions, whilst the others are still discussing their weekend, the flight over etc. It’s important that all concerned recognise that both behaviours are equally valid and acceptable. Establish that as a ground rule, then you have the possibility to navigate a line, defined by the priorities.

Don’t take things personally and accept that people from other cultural environments to your own will work differently. This makes working with international teams so exciting. 

If you are working on a project it makes sense anyway to take some time in the beginning for relationship building as this will build trust. When you have the trust and respect of your team, it’s easier to ask them to keep to certain critical deadlines. That is, assuming you can communicate to them the necessity of why the deadlines are so critical.

Time is money (US)The “manana” attitude of the Spanish
The early bird catches the worm (US)The often repeated “In sha’a Allah” (If God wills) of the Arabs
A stitch in time saves nine (UK)“What flares up fast extinguishes soon” (Turkish proverb)
Strike while the iron is hot. (UK)“Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves” (Italian proverb)
Wasting time is stealing from yourself (Estonian proverb)The Filipino “bahala na” (accept what comes)
Rest makes rust. (Dutch proverb) 
Language of culture

Further Reading: The Lewis Model

In his book “When Cultures Collide: Leading across Cultures“, Richard D. Lewis talks about this phenomenon in detail. I’d recommend this for anyone working with multi-cultural teams. (I will talk about this book in detail in a later post). His thesis is that most countries fall somewhere on the axes of a triangle in a continuum.

Lewis model of time perceptions

Where do you fall in this structure? It’s worth taking some time, to think about how you react to the topics mentioned in this post and to analyse how that can affect your interactions with your business partners. Where do your business partners stand on this diagramme? There may be some surprises for you – for example, assuming that the Czech Republic and Slovakia would be basically the same. In actual fact, Slovakia has more Slavic influences compared to the more “Germanic” Czechs.

Finally, as with any models, these categorisations are to a certain extent generalisations which will not apply 100% in every circumstance. As I mentioned in the beginning: don’t assume. Make sure you treat each person as an individual and get to know them and their values. You can take the tips mentioned here as a tool box in order to deal with different kinds of behaviours and to help you successfully navigate your way to international success.

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  8. […] will have an in-depth knowledge of the business culture of your target market be that in terms of attitudes to time, how to negotiate or which kind of after sales service is required. For many countries, customer […]

  9. […] One example which often causes friction when finding the right partners for China is the polychronic approach to time. […]

  10. […] For sure, in any kind of negotiations, you can feel like you are going round in circles. This is partly due to the relationship aspect of doing business and partly due to a different approach to time. […]

  11. […] and culture of the market you are working in is vital. I’d also recommend learning about how your partners deal with time obligations, as it can ease […]

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  13. […] This is the scale that is often dealt with in 1 day seminars about “doing business in X”, alongside what kind of gifts to bring and how to hold your cutlery. However it’s more a mindset issue than anything else, as I wrote in my post “Time is Time, right?“ […]

  14. […] learn how to work with the people there. Demonstrating to a business partner that you understand WHY his country thinks in a certain way, enhances your chances of being seen as trustworthy and empathetic. Be curious, and learn about the […]

  15. […] they regard time (see also my previous blog post on that topic) and […]

  16. […] across cultures for the first time, it will be a steep learning curve. This can lead to frustration if both sides have different appreciation about what constitutes “on time” or how tasks are to be completed. Training can help with […]

  17. […] is a polychronic culture, so has a fairly flexible attitude towards time, meeting structures, changes of plan etc. […]

  18. […] the Chinese attitude to time, then you need to invest time into the relationship at the beginning. This may seem obvious, but […]

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