How Time Differs across Cultures
Time is something we all share… but how we perceive and manage our time differs greatly across cultures. So how can we, as expats, adapt to these different definitions of time? And is it possible to keep our own values around time and still experience harmony in a "time different" culture or when cooperating in a diverse group?
Different definitions of time
Have you ever been sitting on a train ready to depart, only to find that it leaves late? Have you ever rushed to get to a meeting on time and ended up waiting for the other person? Or do you tend to be the one who arrives late?
If you interpret being late as a sign of disrespect, you might find yourself feeling frequently disappointed if you live in another culture or work in an international environment. However, it could be that the culture around you simply understands time differently!
My time vs. your time
It helps to know that different cultures have different expectations or assign different meanings to what time is.
Some cultures perceive time to be scarce or linear, while others believe time to be infinite. Some view time management as a skill; others find it unimportant.
Anthropologist Edward Hall identified two ways in which cultures structure time:
› Monochronic describes cultures that encourage doing one task at a time. Time is important in these cultures, and people are expected to carefully plan their time. Time is seen as inflexible, and deadlines must be met to achieve results. According to Hall, mostly monochronic cultures include the US, Norway and Switzerland.
› Polychronic describes cultures that take on many tasks at once. Managing relationships is considered more important for achieving results. Time is seen as flexible and plans, as well as deadlines, can be changed. Hall mentions China, Egypt and India as examples of generally polychronic cultures.
Though what is considered "on time" differs from country to country, people from monochronic cultures are more likely to be punctual for meetings and significant social occasions.
Of course, not every country, culture or individual is strictly monochronic or polychronic - many sit somewhere in between, and the "rules" may even differ between work and social environments.
Fitting in to another culture
The first step is to understand what your host country’s views are on time management. Where does the culture sit on the time spectrum? And how different is this to your own culture?
Acceptance of the way things are done - no matter how frustrating you find it - will make your expat stay that much smoother. This is not to say that you have to completely discard your own views of how time should be managed! Keeping the views of your home country will help you when you return home.
It’s about mindfully choosing when it would be best to adapt, for your sake and that of your local friends, family and/or colleagues. This will also help you to become more patient with locals, avoid cultural misunderstandings, and not feel upset every time there’s a time issue.
Pointers to help you feel more comfortable in a "time different" culture
Here are some great tips to help you adjust to different views on time:
› Explain what is obvious to you
Communicate clearly what your expectations are (e.g. for a start time of a meeting or birthday party) and what is "obvious" to you.
› Focus on the solution
Focus on the solution, not the problem, when there is a misunderstanding. Explain your feelings, listen, and focus on what you can do next time to avoid a repeat.
› Assumption is the mother of all mistakes
Check with those around you about how the culture or individuals in question organise and manage their time. Ask why things are done the way they are, so that it makes sense to you. And avoid stereotyping - cultures are dynamic, and people within them can be very different too.
› Be patient
If punctuality is not a priority in the culture, be prepared to wait for others. You may like to come up with strategies to stay relaxed while waiting, like writing in a journal, catching up on admin, or listening to an audiobook or podcast on your phone. If punctuality is valued and you struggle to be on time, try to start earlier (to get ready, to take transport) than you usually would so you can arrive relaxed and on time.
› Be understanding
Show empathy; this will encourage your hosts to reciprocate if you come up against any time misunderstandings in the future.
› Provide non-definite commitments
If you’re not sure you can commit, clearly inform the other person that you will only be able to let them know closer to the date.
Opportunities to learn
Whether you work in an international team or live in a different culture, there is always an opportunity to learn. Could being punctual make you feel more organised? Or could a more flexible mindset around time ease your stress levels? Maybe there’s something each of us can learn from the other way of seeing time...
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