The image of Japanese railway officials bowing to passengers to apologise for the late running of their train shows the importance the Japanese place on time. Americans like to get to the point in a business meeting as time is money. But not every country treats time in the same way. Read on to discover how time across cultures differs around the world.
Time Across Cultures: The Impact of Culture on Time Management
Understanding how time is viewed by different cultures is vital
The ensuing world headlines combined with a begrudging respect and acknowledgement of Japanese culture highlighted how differently time is treated in Japan compared to other cultures where being late is the norm.
Understanding how time is viewed by different cultures is vital if you wish to work across cultures and borders and be successful.
So, how do our cultural values impact our time management?
Perception of Time Across Cultures
Inevitably there is often a clash in attitudes and behaviour
Take the American “time is money” attitude, for instance. Their equating time with money can be clearly seen in their choice of words where they spend time, save time or waste time.
Time, therefore, is an expensive commodity to be used wisely for them. Values such as progress, success and achievement that are held in high regard are based on adherence to time-keeping. Academic and professional assignments are timetabled and obey strict time deadlines.
Ancient countries such as India and Egypt, that have existed for thousands of years, evaluate time very differently. They, unlike the Japanese for instance, do not consider minutes, even hours or days, as desperately critical.
So, when these two cultures meet professionally, inevitably there is often a clash in attitudes and behaviour.
The concept of time management differ reflecting cultural values
Punctuality in attending business meetings in countries such as Japan and Germany does not mean coming on time. That is considered late. You need to arrive at least ten minutes early so that the meeting can start on time.
Doing otherwise is considered rude and unprofessional. It not only causes you to lose face, a big “no no” in such cultures, but you would cause others to lose face by showing disrespect thereby compounding your faux pas.
In countries such as India, it is the norm to arrive late for meetings anticipating the others would do too.
This could have serious consequences with the client losing trust in you and even resulting in you losing their business.
On the other hand, in countries such as India, it is the norm to arrive late for meetings anticipating the others would do too.
The feeling is there is no sense in being on time and find you have to twiddle your thumbs until the others arrive.
The problem of course arises when Indians, Italians or Arabs, for example, have to do business with the Japanese, the Swiss or the Germans where the concept of time management differ reflecting their cultural values.
Attitude Regarding Professionalism
So leaving early, although their colleagues may not have finished for the day, is not considered unprofessional
In countries like Britain, it is perfectly acceptable for employees to leave at the end of their working day, be it five or seven pm.
In other European countries like Italy or Greece, they might leave earlier.
Staff are required to work for a fixed number of hours after which their thoughts might turn to family or dinner.
The value they put on their private lives are as important as work. So leaving early, although their colleagues may not have finished for the day, is not considered unprofessional.
In contrast, the Japanese employees feel duty-bound to stay until their superior does, even if that means staying on till after 10pm.
This does not necessarily reflect positively on effective use of time neither does it mean they work until they leave.
Even sleeping on the job is appreciated as they can be perceived as someone who is exhausted from working hard and long hours.
In Japan, the clock does not dictate how much, how hard or how long you work, but leaving early is never the way to make it to the top.
Family and other personal matters are not allowed to interfere with work which takes priority.
Time Across Cultures: Time vs Relationships
Cultural values such as courtesy, propriety and tradition take priority
In countries where time is a precious commodity, bonding or relationships may take second place.
For instance, ideally the Americans would want to start and finish their discussions, tie up all the loose ends and have the contract signed and sealed by the end of the first meeting itself. But for the Japanese or the Arabs, the first meeting is more about establishing a bond of trust and understanding.
The business can follow later. They are happy to ignore the clock and stretch the meeting, even take it outside the office to a restaurant, a bar or a karaoke bar to get to know each other first.
Cultural values such as courtesy, propriety and tradition take priority. It is possible, if these are ignored, that they may want to take their business elsewhere.
Therefore, a great deal of patience would be required of the Americans with their “cards on the table” attitude.
There can be serious consequences in not understanding how much time to allot to an important business ritual
You simply cannot hurry your counterparts. In Japan, even the initial formal exchange of business cards takes a couple of minutes.
If you thrust your card into your counterpart’s hand and grab theirs and then stuff it into your pocket without studying it carefully, you lose face, cause them to lose theirs, and in the bargain you may lose their business.
There can be serious consequences in not understanding how much time to allot to an important business ritual due to lack of understanding their cultural values.
The Way Forward
Which cultures should dominate? Who should change and adapt: those that schedule, segment and manage time or those that are not controlled by precise calendars and schedules?
The impact of contrasting attitudes towards time management based on differing cultural values can be one party perceiving the other as being irresponsible, unprofessional and even lazy, and in turn being perceived as lacking in courtesy and being emotionally cold.
The questions that arise in doing business with and among multinationals are, which cultures should dominate; who should change and adapt: those that schedule, segment and manage time to the extent of being ruled by it or those that are not controlled by precise calendars and schedules and take a more relaxed approach to managing time?
Ultimately it boils down to which is the stronger or weaker culture as well as who needs the business more.
The way for both sides to emerge winners is to have a clear understanding and empathy, not necessarily sympathy, for those from a different culture with different values. This requires a degree of tolerance and patience.
Yet, in the longer term, if each side is non-judgemental and agrees to meet half-way, both doing business and building relationships can be successful and satisfactory and time across cultures becomes just one more thing that you have to agree on.