Working in a cross-cultural environment: Chapter 2. Our relationship with time

As discussed in chapter one, working in a multicultural environment can be quite an underestimated challenge. We will see in this chapter how our vision of a specific aspect of life, time, can be understood and how we can improve our practices to make international business and collaboration easier and more productive

Have you ever heard the sentence “ Time is Money”? If so you might have thought this was quite true, yet it is not understood the same way around the globe. Your coworkers might have different ways to conceive time and we will discuss some models to characterize our conception of it, you will see that those models are complementary and not mutually exclusive, some cultures might be characterized better by some models than by others.
This article does not aim at placing countries/cultures in specific categories, but at giving you frameworks to understand differences between them and allow for a better collaboration and delegation in your team, locally or remotely.

Let’s start with a model dividing our conception of time into 2 different types, Monochronic and Polychronic. Mono meaning single or one, poly for multiple or many. We call this aspect the Chronemics.

You might prefer to separate the time by task and do only one thing at a time without an interruption in order to be able to do everything in due time. Or you might value being able to manage time in a more flexible manner, doing possibly many things at once or in the same timespan. At a cultural level, it means that people coming from monochronic cultures will tend to do one thing at once and expect from people to give them their full attention, they will tend to have closed-door meetings, not look at their phone when in business, and consider unwanted interruption a nuisance. People coming from polychronic cultures may switch tasks easily, keep the door open and, some of you would feel offended, answer their phones while in a meeting. 

Interactions between monochronic and polychronic cultures can generate many misunderstandings and misjudgments:
-monochronic people might think polychronic ones are not focused, that they are easily distracted or inattentive, even to a point of rudeness and untrustworthiness. 
-polychronic people might think monochronic people are not flexible or adaptative and see them as too formal or even not capable.
Those judgements can have a negative impact on everyone’s working environment. Make sure cultural differences are discussed, if needed pair people with the same conception together. 

Another way to differentiate cultures is by their time-orientation: You can either put emphasis on the past, the present or the future.

Past-oriented cultures are more traditionalist, they value history, culture and are probably more conservative in business too. They might also believe the future will be highly similar to the past. Strong hierarchy and respect of the elders are usually signs of a past-oriented culture.
Present-oriented cultures will say that living the present is the most important, being able to enjoy and get results in the short term might be of the essence here. In business, those cultures might put more emphasis on getting the work done fast and have less fear of taking the risk in the long term or trying things that haven’t been tested.

Future-Oriented cultures will organize their time and set up goals in the long term, they tend to be optimistic or at least believe their actions are fully responsible for their success. In those cultures, the youth would be considered the most valuable asset and their values might be more flexible and adaptive.

In business, it is vital to have an understanding of the others’ time-orientation especially in negotiation and team motivation, if you don’t share the right information to your counterpart, you might not be able to convince them. When negotiating with someone from a country with a past-oriented culture, try to highlight previous working examples and customers. If present-oriented, make sure the person understands the short term benefits and how your solution or service can be impactful right away. If the person is more probably future-oriented you can allow yourself to be more creative and display the results in the long term or how you can make a difference in the long run. 

It is important to note cultures are alive and change constantly, it is therefore quite hard to generalize a time-orientation or time management for a country across generations. Yet we will try to describe them for a few countries  :

  1. United States : Future-oriented and polychronic
  2. United Kingdom : Past-oriented and monochronic
  3. China : Past-oriented and polychronic
  4. France : Present-oriented and polychronic
  5. Germany : Future-oriented and monochronic

Those are examples, it will vary between individuals depending on the familial background, education, age, etc.

Another model relies on our propention to see time as a limited resource, you might say time has a different value depending on the culture : for some time is always of the essence, you cannot be late to an appointment or delay it to another time/day at the last minute. For others it would be more important to be able to do business in the right condition and at the right pace. If you are from the latest you might not agree with the idea of a hard deadline, as the human factor might be more important to you; before moving on you need to consider everyone’s point of view, that the agreement is perfectly settled or that the job is perfectly done: time is more flexible intuitively and can rely on the cultural relationship with power. If you are from a country which values time to the highest level everything will be done not to miss any deadline or appointment and being late might be an unforgivable mistake. India and most countries in the middle-east will for example consider time is plentiful while people from Japan and South Korea will usually be really careful with it and make sure they are always on time.

Other cultural differences regarding time exist: for example the rhythm of life or our perception regarding its cyclicity (whether situations and events repeat themselves like patterns). It is important to note that there are other factors, philosophical and religious, which can have a huge impact.

When you delegate, negociate or plan you need to make sure to manage time at its best. Try to find out what is your relationship with time and the ones of your coworkers, partners and clients. It is much easier to spend time working together when nobody feels like energy is wasted because of a misunderstanding.

As every culture perceives time differently, hiring someone working remotely from another country can provide you a different point of view. You can learn and earn a lot thanks to cultural differences, use it to your advantage.

In the next chapter we will discuss some other aspects of cultural differences as well as more tools to use them to our advantages.