How Different Cultures View Time


In Germany you can set your watch by the arrival and departure of trains. A business associate in Frankfurt once told me that if she has an appointment at 9:00 AM, she makes sure to arrive at 8:57 AM. The reason is that it takes one minute for her client to beckon her to come into his office, one minute to walk to the office, and one minute to enter, sit down and settle into the chair. This would ensure that the meeting can start promptly at 9:00 AM as scheduled. Her logic was obsessively precise.

If you are ever in Brazil and you are invited to a party at 8:00 PM, you can show up punctually at that time if you want to see your hosts in their bathrobes and are willing to help in the setup of the get-together. Get ready to help inflate balloons, and make sure there are plenty of beer in the cooler since the invited guests will not be arriving until at least 8:45 PM or later.

In some Latin American countries, clients oftentimes ask sales people to call on their mobiles once they are in the car driving to the appointment. Clients want a heads-up that the sales person is indeed in route. In the face of elastic time, this is a pragmatic way for the client to avoid waiting for the sales person, and for the sales person to make sure the client is there when he/she arrives. Basically, this is a tactful way to avoid making excuses on both sides.

In the U.S. being late by five minutes is acceptable. Ten minutes, you are pushing it. Fifteen minutes is considered impolite. Even people attending social gatherings place an importance on punctuality. If the gathering is going to last for two hours, most hosts and guests want to make sure schedules are kept since most attendees have other plans for after the event. Time is viewed as valuable, and those attending the event want to be considerate of others’ time related needs.

These examples show how different cultures view the passing of time. For those to whom time represents a series of passing events, in a linear, orderly and programed fashion, are described as Sequential. On the other hand, those cultures where past, present and future are interconnected, where time is much more elastic, even cyclical, are considered Synchronic.

Time is an idea and a perception, and therefore not an object. As such, time is highly subjective and open to interpretation. As a social construct, time allows members of a culture to coordinate activities between each other and for individual members as a way to manage daily activities.

However, although people can contemplate time on the basis of past, present and future, each of these stages are not weighted with the same importance by different cultures. Hence, Sequential cultures see time as a string of events which represent equal building blocks. Activities are placed linearly along that string, in a logical and efficient way. Time is the rope that keeps these events in line. For members of sequential cultures, keeping up with the passing of time is paramount in order to not be late and to accomplish planned tasks. It is under these guidelines that time controls people’s lives. For these cultures time can then be said to be inflexible, unyielding and inelastic.

On the other hand, synchronic cultures view time in flexible and elastic terms. Time represents a construct in which many activities can occur simultaneously. There are no clear cut paths to accomplishing goals and conducting activities. Therefore, members of these cultures can switch between activities as needed. These persons can also switch direction at a moment’s notice allowing for a more creative view of time.

This notion that time is viewed and perceived differently has important implication to those living abroad as well as within a business context. On a personal basis, those that perceive time sequentially will find it difficult to adjust living in countries where time is elastic or even circular and therefore not based on consecutive and chronologically adhered events. The opposite also holds true. People from synchronic cultures need to adjust their time perception in order to navigate through the scheduling and time constraints that a Sequential country places on events.

Within a business context, the time allocated to complete a task can either be precise as in the case of all Sequential countries, or only meant as a guideline as it would be in Synchronic cultures. This difference in interpretation can cause confusion and misinterpretations. Business contracts can be affected as well. Business people from a Synchronic culture will aim to have longer contracts with few or no time constraints, while their Sequential counterparts will look for contracts with time frames that can be controlled. In other words, one- year contract, 5-year contract and so forth.

Business appointments within a synchronic cultural context should be viewed more as an intention to meet at a particular time. However, the actual meeting can be rescheduled for earlier or later and meetings do not end until the goals of the meeting are completed. Sequential cultures set a time block to accomplish goals and once that time allocation expires, new times for subsequent meetings are agreed upon. The reason for this is obvious; there are other meetings previously scheduled and other tasks to complete.

Often times members of Synchronic cultures will use time elasticity and the notion that goals must be accomplished once a meeting starts as a negotiating tactic when dealing with Sequential culture members. There have been reports of American business people negotiating contracts in China during which the final decisions are held until it is time for the guest to return home. Chinese negotiators know that American business people experience time pressures and inflexible schedules. The gamble is that the American business person will acquiesce to last minute demands in order to stay within the allocated blocks of time previously set.

The concept of time perception as it relates to cultures was identified by Alfonsus (Fons) Trompenaars, a Dutch organizational theorist and Charles Hampden-Turner a British business philosopher and researcher. They identified a total of seven cultural dimensions that allow those who understand them improve their cross-cultural communications skills.

The following are the seven cultural dimensions conceived by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner.

The reader will find the following chart helpful in further visualizing the difference between Sequential and Synchronic cultures.

(Anne-Marie Dingemans — February 15, 2011)

The following are some examples of countries’ time perception.

 

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