Differences and similarities in perception of time are maybe the easiest ones to spot in people’s behaviours and likely attributed to culture. Let’s take a closer look at the Scheduling scale of Meyer’s Culture Map.
Why do I think this scale is the least controversial when working in an international environment? Well I think that this one is least likely attributed to personal abilities or qualities of people. You’re less likely to say ‘Oh this Spanish guy is so unprofessional, he’s always late’, but rather ‘Oh yeah, he’s Spanish, let’s give him another 5 minutes’. You might be looking at it a bit stereotypically or make jokes, but it’s generally more acceptable. With in the Leading scale for example, it’s more likely for people to make a comment along the lines of ‘This Japanese guy never contributes to anything, he never speaks up during the meetings!’. But rarely people will reflect and actually give him the chance to speak up, relating to their intercultural knowledge. Instead they will blame him and look at him as unreliable team member.
Both of the above are obviously exaggerated examples, but it’s just to give you the idea of how certain aspects of cultures can be differently perceived and attributed.
Linear vs Flexible
Coming back to the Scheduling scale, it has two dimensions: Linear-time and Flexible-time. On the linear-time side you will find countries such as for example Germany, Japan, US, UK, closer to the other spectrum there will be most of African countries, India, Brazil, Spain… Just to remind you, all of the comparisons between the countries should be considered relatively to each other. The terms you might find in other sources as well for this scale are monochronic vs polychronic cultures.
So what are the practical implications of this scale? Well it might for example make it easier for you to establish how late is actually late, when you should actually inform people that you’re late, what does I’ll see you after two days vs I’ll see you in two days mean. Usually that’s the thing you can easily get used to once you learn how it works.
Stick to the schedule!
I believe that it’s slightly harder for people from linear-time cultures to adjust and understand flexible-time cultures when it comes to wider functioning, apart from just scheduling meeting times. It can get very frustrating when you have prepared your agenda thoroughly, set the goals for the meeting and then suddenly half of the group is late, in the middle of the meetings someone leaves the room to pick up an important call, some additional off-topics start to appear. It’s hard to tell when the perceived chaos is normal and when is it starting to be out of control.
Any tips for a linear-time readers out there?
Unpredictability is the key to success!
It seems like adjusting might be slightly easier for flexible-time cultures – it’s enough to stick to the agenda and you will survive. As hard as it might be. But the problem is that this way of solving problems or making decisions is just nor perceived as efficient enough and will get very frustrating and demotivating as quickly as the unpredictability in the case of a linear-time cultures.
Having a mixture of cultures in one team will require meeting somewhere in the middle of the Scheduling scale to keep the team productive.
Luckily, although this scale might cause some problems and miscommunication between people, they are very easy to explain and adjust to. If you’re very late to a meeting in Germany once and everyone will look at you with a disappointment, I bet next time you will be there right on time! 🙂
As if it’s not enough already, that’s another thing to have in mind when working and living in an international environment. If you’d like to read some more about scales that are less often attributed to cultures, but having an enormous influence on how people work together cross-culturally go to articles about Communicating, Evaluating, Leading, Deciding and Trusting and learn some more!