What’s the Time? Depends Which Culture You Are From!

Matthew MacLachlan

13 Jul 2016

Time is one of the most precious commodities. What’s the time? To be on time. To have time. To make time. There are so many expressions we use in our day-to-day lives that include time. But do we all treat time in the same way?

Anyone who works across cultures is often surprised by how their international counterparts manage meetings, projects or other business activities. Read on and find out more about the perceptions of time across cultures.

The concept of time across cultures

Working effectively across cultures requires an awareness of different perceptions of time

Different cultures will have different interpretations of being ‘on time’. The importance placed on deadlines and how people refer to the past, present or future are just some aspects of how time can be perceived differently across cultures.

Working effectively across cultures requires an awareness of different perceptions of time which will help to reduce the complexity of international business and put you in a better position to manage and harness cultural differences.

Indeed time across cultures is a tricky field and should not be underestimated.

Sequential or synchronic time perception?

Dutch interculturalist Fons Trompenaars suggests a simple model which puts attitudes to time into two general categories

There are so many components of time that need to be understood when working across cultures that it can become quite confusing.

Dutch interculturalist Fons Trompenaars suggests a simple model which puts attitudes to time into two general categories:

  • Sequential
  • Synchronic

With these terms, Trompenaars attempts to describe how people around the world manage their time and how time impacts on their behaviour and mindset.

Sequential cultures

Examples of Sequential cultures includes the UK, Germany, South Africa, USA, Australia and Switzerland

 

Trompenaars argues that time is dealt with in a specific logical order.

For example, people from a sequential culture may prefer to have a detailed agenda for meetings and regular milestones throughout the life cycle of a project. They rely on this structure and can find a more flexible approach to time frustrating.

Time tends to control and influence what people do in sequential cultures

Time tends to control and influence what people do in sequential cultures, and many will find value in the expression ‘time is money’.

Synchronic cultures

Examples of Synchronic cultures include Italy, Argentina, Brazil and Greece

People tend to manage their time quite differently than those from sequential cultures.

In synchronic cultures, people will have a much broader and more flexible perception of time. As such time is adaptable and allows much more freedom for tasks to be achieved.

People will approach tasks in a much more open way and not be as beholden to deadlines and timeframes

People from synchronic cultures don’t tend to be slaves to time, but rather they use time as guidance for how they structure their day and life.

In synchronic cultures, people will approach tasks in a much more open way and not be as beholden to deadlines and timeframes.

  • Rescheduling a meeting at the last minute,
  • Showing up a few minutes after the meeting start time
  • Missing an agreed deadline

How do people from synchronic and sequential cultures perceive each other?

Their more rigid and structured approach to time can seem inflexible and too strict

While this approach may frustrate those from a sequential culture, their more rigid and structured approach to time can seem inflexible and too strict to those from synchronic cultures.

Here are a few additional different attitudes you may find in sequential and synchronic cultures. As you read through the list ask yourself what you agree with the most. Then think about how someone with the opposite approach may perceive you.

Sequential cultures Synchronic cultures
People tend to do one thing at a time People tend to do multiple things at a time
Times are precise and punctuality is valued Times and deadlines are guidelines that people may intend to meet but won’t always
Time is limited – time is a resource that needs to be efficiently used Time is a tool, a subjective, a mouldable concept
Logic, efficiency and speed are the focus of business Relationships are the focus of business and will improve efficiency
Tasks are sometimes secondary to time Sticking to time is secondary to building relationships
Meeting deadlines is demanded Sticking to time is secondary to building relationships
The future is a continuation of the present The future is interconnected with the past and present

 

Different perceptions of time across cultures can cause conflict

The importance that people give to time can vary dramatically. Working effectively across cultures requires the ability to not only identify different perceptions of time, but it also requires the skills to be able to manage business and relationships when attitudes to time are so drastically different.

Be aware of how you may be perceived by your international counterparts when working across cultures

Attending a cross-cultural awareness course like Working Effectively across Cultures can give you an understanding of how cultures control time or let it control them, and how behaviours are therefore impacted.

Whether you see time as money, something to be controlled or something that will guide you from one point to another, think about the above attitudes to time you may find and be aware of how you may be perceived by your international counterparts when working across cultures.



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