Time across cultures - part 1 - The Tortoise and the Hare - Or how we slice and dice time

How do you see time?  Does it move in a straight line or is it more circular?  Do you have plenty of time or never enough? Is time something to be managed or enjoyed? Time exerts an unusual and often invisible influence on how we interact, work, and behave with other people:  our attitudes to punctuality, planning and deadlines all connect to our relationship with time.  Perceptions of time differ around the world and this in turn influences the way that we manage and experience the flow of time around us.

1. Perceptions of Time

How time passes, how time is divided, the speed at which time flows, the pace of life at which people live, and how much they do, is dictated to us by our perception of time.

  • Linear Time -  FAST

In countries such as Germany, Switzerland or the UK time is segmented like a road or a ribbon extending forward into the future and backward to the past. It is also tangible; time can be saved, spent, wasted, lost, made up, accelerated, slowed down, crawling or running out. What is important is done first and given the most time. Unimportant tasks are left to last or omitted if time runs out.

  • Polychronic Time -  FRANTIC

Time is less tangible in countries such as Brazil, Greece, Italy and Spain. Time is a point and that point is sacred. Several things can happen at once at this point in time. Polychronic systems stress the involvement of people and completion of transactions rather than adherence to pre-set schedules. Scheduling appointments can be difficult or near impossible because the time a transaction takes to complete cannot be predetermined.

  • Reflective Time -  SLOW

Everybody’s time is valuable for people in reflective cultures such as East Asian countries. Time is plentiful so everything can be done properly. Recognising the value of time means thanking people for their time and not wasting time. Time is segmented into specific predetermined rituals to ensure that tradition and courtesy can be respected. Rituals are orderly parts of life and they help to structure daily life. Everything is cyclical and the cycle allows reflective people to reflect on the past and on the future before committing to an action or a ritual.

2. The Pace of Life

The pace of life or the tempo at which we do things is closely related to our perceptions of time. But the speed at which people do things (pace of life) can be very different to the speed at which we expect people to do things (perception of time). Robert Levine examined the pace of life around the globe in his the book “A Geography of Time” published in 1998 and used three measures to chart the pace of life in different countries:

  • The average walking speed of randomly selected pedestrians over a distance of 60 feet.
  • An example of speed in the workplace: the time it took postal clerks to fulfill a standard request for stamps
  • The accuracy of 15 randomly selected bank clocks in main downtown areas in each city

Fast paced countries such as the US are often more focused on the future whereas typically slower paced cultures such as Latin American countries are more focused towards the past.  The pace of life is, not surprisingly, different in different countries. Perhaps more surprisingly, the pace of life is not always the same in countries where people broadly share the same perception of time.  People who know that different perceptions of time exist in the world are surprised find that the pace of life in some linear countries is slow, but the pace of life in some reflective countries is fast. In polychronic countries things that can happen at the same time happen either slowly or quickly. The situation becomes surreal when find the fast perception of time they were expecting is accompanied by a slow pace of life, or when a slow perception of time is accompanied with a fast pace of life.

This dual view of time and how it is used can be confusing and it can be all too easy to make mistaken assumptions about our international colleagues' and partners’ relationships with time. We must be aware of both the perception of time and the pace of life if we are to improve our understanding of how time and tempo influence the way in which people behave. This can help us to tune into to how time works for them and to avoid those common frustrations and misunderstandings around punctuality, availability, deadlines and planning.  Show flexibility and patience as you adjust to cross-cultural attitudes to time and remember that people from other cultures may find your relationship with time just as challenging as you find theirs.

With thanks to Ben Swan

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