How do different cultures manage time?
Cultural attitudes about time usually run between urgent (or brisk) to relaxed. How long should it take to establish a meeting? How long should it take to develop rapport? How long to reach an agreement? How quickly should phone messages and emails be answered? How many minutes are acceptably late? How many minutes are inexcusably late? Is a deadline a deadline or a convenient fiction? Beyond the obvious differences in these two perspectives, which most of us have felt at one time or another in how fast or how slow we imagine things to be going, this dimension of culture has more far-reaching implications.
For example, cultures that are urgent about time (U.S. Americans being at the extreme end of the scale) usually feel a need to complete one step of a process or one topic of a discussion before moving on. Jumping around from place to place or going off on tangents without "getting closure" is the quickest way to drive this type of person to desperation. Cultures who are more relaxed about time (South Asia, most of Africa, eastern and southern Europe, and most of Latin America) find this "looping" style completely normal as well as the most rewarding way to function within their own group. They may feel unnecessarily pressured when working with the "urgent" type of culture.
- Keep in mind, however, that the speed at which things get done is not necessarily an indicator of attitudes about time. Bureaucratic processes and degree of technology available may be beyond the control of a typically punctual group.
- You may find yourself in a country where people are customarily late for appointments. Even so, never take the liberty of being late for an appointment yourself.
Tips for urgent people
- Plan well in advance for a slower pace and communicate to all your team members and those you report to about your expectations for the encounter(s).
- Have other things to do while waiting. Review correspondence while waiting for a late meeting to start. Indulge in social chat when the group is not ready to move to a business agenda—you can learn valuable relationship information here! Plan for longer slack times in your project schedules.
- Never become angry or issue frustrated ultimatums, especially in a public forum. If you're having severe time-lag problems, appeal privately to your closest counterpart and ask him/her what can be done to help them understand and work with your time constraints.
Tips for relaxed people
- Avoid the temptation to see urgent people as insensitive or unrealistic. They are more accustomed to time pressure, and it is a very real issue in their lives. Living with rigid time constraints is a part of the overall organization of society, not necessarily their personal preference.
- Attempt to work with and negotiate schedules, perhaps in more detail than you are accustomed, to ensure proper understanding and expectations on both sides. Never make promises that you know you can't keep! It is better to be honest and work out a plan than to say the pleasing thing and not follow through.
- Help motivate your team and your superiors to work with the agreed schedule.
- Communicate regularly about unexpected delays to your urgent counterpart and ask them to work together with you to find solutions.