When working internationally or within multicultural teams, time issues often represent stumbling blocks and misunderstandings points. Beyond the clichés of the German riding on the schedule and Italians always being late, it is important to understand that the perception of time is strongly linked to the culture of each person, more or less elastic depending on this person’s cultural roots and his/her education levels.
Going back to basics, researcher E.T. Hall distinguishes monochronic cultures (The US, Scandinavia, Germanic countries, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom…) and polychromic cultures (Latin America, Middle East, Africa, Asia and to some extent France and Greece) . These two ways of thinking one’s relation to time are logically and empirically quite distinct. Like oil and water, they do not mix. That being said, we understand why it can be complicated for people from different cultures to work on projects together
Certainly complicated, but not impossible! The 1st thing to do, as in any multicultural context, is to take a step back and realise that each of us approaches life and relations to others through a personal cultural prism, and that in any given situation, we cannot believe that we are the only ones that are doing it the right way. It is essential to start by getting to know and understand the mode of operations of people from other cultures in order to take them into account when structuring the relationship and collaboration.
Monochronic cultures (in the North) have a linear view of time. Action begets a cause, which leads to another action. Time is perceived as something easy to tame and structure to our will. So people compartmentalise, prepare retro-schedules, to-do lists for the day, week, months to come. Every action has a sense towards a fixed goal. Delays or the unforeseen events are perceived as a lack of respect and professionalism. This way of managing time may cause stress, fear that its to-do-list is not fully checked late in the day. This stress is often echoed down from a manager to its team-members without even realising it. When these employees come from one culture with the opposite perception of time, the clash is inevitable.
Polychronic cultures (in the South) are more in the moment than in the projection. There is less distinction between personal and professional life, as everything intertwines. This cultural prism on tome also tends to favor time spent building relationships over the “artificial” watch time. And unlike the monochromic cultures, time is never “lost”, it is just used differently than it had originally been planned. The time for action is central, it takes priority over the planning of the following tasks. What monochronic culture may call laxity, is often just another prioritisation of things. Relationships, Humans, deepening of things are more important than the « dictatorship of the watch », which should only be a tool, not a master.
Is one of the systems better than the other? Certainly not. But differences are a fact and can cause serious problems when these two visions of the time coexist within a single work place. Especially if the issue is to start meetings on time, plan an efficient strategy to set out a new product on the market, or co-building a professional event. Before starting to work on a project involving stakeholders from different culture, it is strongly recommend that you all sit down together and build your own operational methods: explain deadlines and their purposes, find a common ground on meeting hours or retro-planning uses… and keep flexibility and kindness towards employees who must adapt… These are basic rules of conduct to have in mind if you do not want “to waste time”!
My French Communication Agency, 10 years of support on international projects, makes you benefit from its expertise to raise the pitfalls you might encounter in multicultural communication. Do not hesitate to contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org