Time – a multi-cultured thing

Time – a Multi-Cultured Thing

Time is cultural, subjective, and variable. One of the most serious causes of frustration and friction in cross-cultural business dealings occurs when counter-parts are out of sync with each other. Differences often appear with respect to the pace of time, its perceived nature, and its function. Insight into a culture view of time may be found in sayings and proverbs. Here are some of them.

Life is short and time is swift. Busiest men find the most of time. Time and tide wait for no man. (Great Britain)
Time is money. He who hesitates is lost, (the United States)
Think three times before you act. (China)
Those who rush arrive first at the grave. (Spain)
The clock did not invent man. (Nigeria)
If you wait long enough, even an egg will walk. (Ethiopia)
Before the time, it is not yet the time; after the time, it’s too late. (France)
Slower you go, farther you would be. (Russia)


American culture is more time-bound than Middle Eastern or Latin American one. North Americans think that Eastern and Latin American people are always late, while the latter think that North Americans are always prompt. Neither statement is completely true though both have a reason. What is true, however, is that the USA is a very time-oriented society, whereas in other cultures time is to be saved, not spent.
Edward Hall defines two time systems – monochronic and polychronic. M-time (monochronic) typifies most North Americans, Swiss, Germans, and Scandinavians. These Western cultures tend to concentrate on one thing at a time. They divide time into small units and are concerned with promptness. M-time is used in a linear way and it is experienced as being almost tangible in that we save time, waste time, bid time, spend time, and lose time.

P-time, or polychronic time system, is dominant in Asian cultures where the completion of a human transaction is emphasized more than holding to schedules. P-time is characterized by the simultaneous occurrence of many things and by a great involvement with people.
During the study of perception of punctuality in the U. S. and Brazil it has been found that Brazilian timepieces were less reliable, and public clocks less available than in the United States. Researchers also found that Brazilians more often described themselves as late arrivers, allowed greater flexibility in defining early and late, were less concerned about being late, and were more likely to blame external factors for their lateness than Americans.
The P-time system gives rise to looser time schedules, deeper involvement with individuals, and a “wait-and-see-what-develops” attitude. For example, two Latinos conversing would likely be late for their next appointment rather than abruptly terminate the conversation before it came to a natural conclusion.
P-time is characterized by a much looser understanding of being on time. Interruptions are routine: delays to be expected. It is not so much putting things off until tomorrow but the concept that human activities are not expected to proceed like clockwork.
Haste and impatience are probably the most common mistakes of North Americans attempting to trade in the Middle East. Most Arabs do not like to embark on serious business discussions until after two or three opportunities to meet the individual they are dealing with, thus the negotiations are likely to be prolonged. They may make rapid decisions once they are prepared, but they do not like to rush and to meet deadlines.

Time – a multi-cultured thing