Time across cultures - part 2 - Lost in the mists of time

Are you rudely late or irritatingly over-punctual? What does being “on time” mean to you? Do you see time as money as we often do in the UK and the US or are you more in tune with the concept of stretchable time as people so often are in India?

Time is a concept that interculturalists deal with very frequently. It seems so obvious yet it causes so many misunderstandings in the international business arena. And the more punctual your home culture is, the more irritation you are likely to experience in cultures where time seems to be a random construct attached to a happening as opposed to a clock. I’ve always been a firm believer that punctuality starts in Switzerland - the home of watch making - and from there it permeates outwards from its epicentre. The further away from the Swiss mountains you move, the more focus people place on relationships and life becomes less of a race against time. Of course, before any accusations of cultural stereotyping, this is not truly accurate but a fun way of looking at it!

 "On time?"

I was recently teaching in India and encountered for the first time what is known as “reporting time.” As my Indian students always arrived 10-15 minutes after the scheduled start time, my Austrian exchange students started to become irritated. I started our next session with a discussion about time across cultures. It was then that one Indian student revealed that there was a 15-minute reporting time at their university. Good to know for my next visit! It’s funny how it sometimes takes us so long to grasp the concepts behind behaviours which are different to our own. They are so deeply ingrained into our own cultural rules. And it must have been so tiresome for our Indian counterparts, as for them we were always turning up early for lectures and showing our frustration at their seeming lateness. 

So, what can help us to manage time when working with people from other cultures? 

  • If you are managing an international team, be clear from the start how time will be managed and make sure you get agreement from everyone. If you want the meeting to start at 9 am, say clearly “9 am sharp” or even “8.45 for a 9 am start!”  Otherwise create a window for ‘small talk’ to allow for people arriving a few minutes late.
  • Some countries such as Germany value strict punctuality more than others – this needs to be addressed transparently at kick-off meetings and then you can create clear ground rules from the start.
  • Determine in your working group if deadlines are movable or not – some cultures see them as targets and others as cut-off points. Look at collaboration and team goals to make sure team members understand the importance of deadlines – they are part of the ultimate plan and provide focus.
  • Don’t assume that digital communication crosses all the boundaries of cultures. Just because it’s quick to send an email across the globe, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a quick response is on the cards. In more hierarchical cultures such as Japan, people may have to consult superiors or other team members before reporting back. And your partners from relationship-focused cultures are always more likely to respond quickly if they have a personal connection with you.
  • Make sure to carry out regular status checks – more updates are needed than in mono-cultural teams as they provide clarity and transparency. This may be seen as micromanaging by some team members at the beginning but if you clarify your intentions, people won’t feel offended.
  • Some cultures are linear (monochronic) and others have a more fluid approach to time (polychronic) –both styles have their advantages so make use of them in your diverse team!

Whether miscommunication in international teams is caused by time or other issues, it’s important to remain flexible and be ready to adapt your usual practice. Knowledge is vital, but cultural intelligence is more than just knowing about other cultural norms. Cultural intelligence also involves being mindful and constantly adjusting your style and your assumptions, like a chameleon. There are no shortcuts when developing your cultural intelligence. Just as in the case of my experience with reporting time, we need to notice, digest and respond to these differences. And it’s a fulfilling moment when you finally get it right! Switching off your cultural autopilot is never an easy feat. We need to avoid making biased judgements about cultural values that are different to our own. Always remember that what is considered normal, or in this case “on time,” varies depending on where in the world you are working.

Vanessa Image


Vanessa is an experienced intercultural trainer and coach.  After living in Austria for many years, she’s now back in the UK and enjoys accompanying professionals and their families through the relocation and repatriation process.

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