Cultural Differences in the Workplace- It’s About Time!


Cultural differences in the workplace extend across all aspects of communication and relationships but one area we don’t often recognize as a cultural concept is our cultural differences in the workplace is in our approach to time. Instinctively we feel that time is the same in all countries. But time is much more than the number on the clock – time has meaning that is different depending on cultural beliefs and values. Recognizing these cultural differences can be important in business meetings and relationships.

The way cultures talk about time is one indicator of the cultural differences in our attitudes toward time. In North American culture we are very familiar with the phrases “time is money” and “wasting time”. Whereas in Mexico there is a popular adage: “give time to time” (Darle tiempo al tiempo) and in Africa there is the phrase “Even the time takes its time”. This is because in North American culture, as well as Switzerland, Germany, Japan and Israel, time is something that is considered precious and we don’t have enough of it. This is defined as a Monochronic culture, which means we want things to be done one at a time. Time is seen as limited, segmented and schedule driven. For example, in North American culture, a meeting is scheduled with someone and the visitor is given your undivided attention during the allotted time. Time is considered to be a scarce commodity and therefore, the emphasis is placed on decisions being made and actions being performed as quickly as possible. Eric Pye, a Career Services Advisor with the Chartered Professional Accountants of Alberta, used to teach English in Japan. He notes that the Japanese will ensure they arrive early for interviews no matter what. Pye says, “in Japan, the Japanese will ensure they are early to ensure they are on time because punctuality is very important in Japan”. In contrast, Polychronic cultures like to do more than one thing at the same time. Time is considered to be flexible and multidimensional. Examples of these cultures are Mediterranean, Latin American and Arab countries. In these cultures, relationships are considered more important than deadlines and schedules. Although a meeting may be scheduled for a certain time, relationship building is considered to be so important that it is irrelevant at what time one meets.

In his book “A Geography of Time”, social psychologist Robert Levine talks about different cultures marking time in varying “tempos”. He concludes that some cultures define events by the clock and others allow events to run their natural courses. North American and Eastern European cultures can be said to run by Clock Time, where the hour on the timepiece governs the beginning and ending of activities. We can be so governed by clock time that even biological events are scheduled by the clock, such as eating and sleeping. For example, when Native Americans first encountered the European settlers, they made the comment “White man is strange. He looks at his watch and says it is time to eat”.   Other cultures run by Event Time, where scheduling is determined by activities and events begin and end when, by mutual consensus, participants “feel” the time is right. He gives an example in Berundi when you want to make a late appointment you say “I’ll see you when the cows come in”.

These cross-cultural differences in our attitudes towards time can extend towards how we think about the past, present and future. American culture values focus on the future and a belief that the future can be controlled. Therefore future planning is mandatory because of the belief that devoting large amounts of energy to the future will create a desired result. In linear-active cultures time is seen as a road along which we proceed and that we can foresee. American executives, with their quarterly forecasts, will tell you how much money they are going to make in the next three months. However those cultures who believe in Cyclic time are less disciplined in their planning for the future, since they believe it cannot be managed and it is easier to “harmonize” with the laws and cyclic events of nature.

As with all cross-cultural differences, the key is to maintain a positive understanding and mutual respect for cultural differences and recognize there are several ways to approach the concept of time. Since cultures understanding of time extends throughout history, it can be a difficult concept to change, and perhaps unnecessary. A good example of this occurred in March 2007 when the Peruvian government introduced a new initiative asking schools, businesses and institutions to stop tolerating tardiness. The attempt was to change the concept of “Hora Peruana” in Peruvian time, which means being an hour late and which most Peruvians embrace as an endearing part of their culture. Instead Peruvian officials tried to introduce “La Hora sin Demora” meaning “time without delay”. Unfortunately the invitation to the 11:00 am kickoff ceremony was delivered by messenger to the Associated Press at 1:30 pm after the event had ended!

Posted in

Tina Varughese