Time: culture, memories, history and borders (Part 1)

Rob in DanangTime: culture, memories, history and borders (Part I)

Time has no independent existence apart from the order of events by which we measure it. Albert  Einstein

Time plays a vital part in our lives. It influences not just when, but how we cooperate with each other. It influences the processes and procedures we follow and how we connect with each other.

It is at the heart of the intercultural dimensions we must to consider in diverse teams and it is a vital dimensions determining whether we reach our pre-determined objectives successfully, or not.

Our understanding, knowledge and how we handle different perceptions of time in an international team is crucial in many interactions. Our ability to interpret others perception of time, and how we deal with resulting frustrations and annoyances caused by misinterpretation and misunderstanding, can influence the efficiency and effectiveness of the team.

The relativity of time and an individual’s association to it should be viewed from three intercultural perspectives:

a) the impact of time being scarce or plentiful

b) time’s impact on individuals operating in polychronic or monochronic cultures

c) the influential variations of the past, present and future across different cultures.

Scare and plentiful – outsiders and insiders

Time influences the emotions we have in our relationships to each other.

In a place where time is seen as being scarce and a limited resource, people learn to manage time efficiently, but they can be regarded as inflexible, rigid and even obstinate to ‘outsiders’. Conversely, where time is plentiful people are more relaxed, flexible and less constrained by tight schedules. However, people following this attitude to time can be regarded as ‘time wasters’, too relaxed (even lazy) by others.

As with other cultural dimensions, our view of time is profoundly affected and shaped by the historical and social experiences we are influenced by: the way we live, work and interact with each other. We have an insider’s view.

Simply, many people, organisations, institutions and even nations are brought up with the cultural notion that time is money or time is valuable. While in other cultures, time plays a lesser role and people and individuals play a more influential role.

In each of these cultures, beliefs and resulting approaches to work and cooperation are reflections of the values and attitudes we share with similar ‘insiders’.

Mono- and polychronic variations

People in monochronic cultures, pursue one thing (activity or relationship) at a time. Tasks are sequential (‘logical’) rather that parallel and any procedural ‘road map’ is divided into distinct sections. Time may be seen as wasted when a participant in a negotiation has a ‘holistic approach’ – jumping back and forth between topics rather than addressing them step-by-step.

In an international project team, a sequential and systematic approach appears to be the obvious way of doing things, deadlines ensure people perform or deliver the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. For example, all JIT manufacturing, supply chain processes and so on, rely on these ‘milestones’.

In polychronic cultures, people pursue multiple actions and goals simultaneously (holistically). Individuals who have a more flexible-time orientation are much more likely to live in the ‘now’. They mix business and private matters which may also occupy the same levels of priority.

Expertly juggling ever-changing priorities is one of the strengths demonstrated by multi-tasking individuals. A deadline from their perspective is agreed one minute, but in the next minute circumstances change, new things occur and challenges arise, so approaches and behaviour need to reflect this.

P1020202Impact of change, past-present-future

Time is universal, but conversely our experience of it is not. People, whether they be rigid or flexible time keepers, live in a world where things are equally unpredictable. In a fixed, reliable and predictable location or environment where everything is dependable, more or less consistent, and usually on time, a person’s perceptions, attitude and behaviour will mirror this reality.

Rigid time keepers let time play a more dominant role as it is seen as a core value. They invest energy and are disciplined to not let anything interfere, especially with their planned and detailed schedules. Being on-time, fulfilling milestones in projects, punctuality, etc., show reliability and respect to their partners. ‘Respecting the clock’ is both a precondition and guarantee of efficiency. The relationship between past-present- future can be equally spread across all these three time zones.

Alternatively, if you are brought up in a culture of constant change (climatically, politically, financially, personally, etc.) your reality is liable to reflect this. Your relationships are liable to have priority over the clock and ‘here and now’ is the focus rather than some vague and changeable future.

Way forward

Between these two time-zone cultures misunderstandings, frustrations, disputes and ultimately conflict can occur. What people with rigid-time zone, ‘sticking with the plan’ see as a core value and a key to success may not even be acknowledged, or even unconsciously disrespected, by team-members with a more ‘relaxed and chilled-out’ attitude to working together and handling changes as they occur.

Cross-cultural sensitivity and self-awareness is vital to transform these subtle, transparent and ingrained cultural ‘time memes’. Only then can the tricky and deceptive international time-warps that distort our perceptions, interpretations and feelings be reduced.



What part does the past (history) play in your perception, values, attitudes and relationships?

What practical things can you do to ensure that cross-border projects run more successfully, i.e.  time is not wasted and things are more efficient and effective?