Are you one of those people who arrive at the meeting ten minutes early? Do you get annoyed if your colleague is five minutes late for lunch and hasn’t told you they’re late? Do you feel that time is money?
For many Westerners, these thoughts are common. Our workdays are built according to different schedules, and often appointments that stretch from the scheduled time on the calendar pose challenges to the rest of the day’s tasks.
Often we may even apologize if we have taken another person’s time 15 minutes more than intended. At work, we measure efficiency by how much time it takes to complete different tasks, and we may feel satisfied with how many tasks we have completed on our to-do list during the day.
It is also noteworthy that in the West, every effort is made to stick to schedules agreed; if a friend asks us for lunch at the same time we have an appointment with a colleague, few of us would postpone the appointment because of this.
Linear time orientation and its influence on work culture
In many Western cultures, such as Finland and the United States, we have the past, the present as well as the future. It is natural for us to schedule a workshop three months from now or to plan a summer holiday trip for next year.
Schedules are a way of coordinating life, which is why deadlines are important. Most Western cultures value punctuality because it means we respect another person’s time. By respecting the other person’s time, we are able to more easily balance work and leisure and distinguish between the two.
Flexible or polychronic time orientation and its effect on the prioritization of things
However, in many cultures, such as Italy, Brazil, Egypt, Africa, and South Asia, time is understood in a completely different way. The key idea is that life is unpredictable and anything can happen during the day, which makes it impossible to schedule events in the long run.
Time is perceived as flexible. This means that meeting dates are set flexibly; appointments can be arranged after the morning prayer or after the midday siesta. Most likely, if you have arranged a meeting at 9 am, the other party will arrive 30-90 minutes after.
For many Western cultures, this seems alien, and it can be difficult to see how people from flexible time cultures can complete tasks or plan anything. Relationships are important in polychronic cultures (often collective cultures) and the boundaries between work and leisure are not as precise as in linear time orientation cultures. If you have arranged a meeting, and you happen to meet your childhood friend on the street, in a flexible time culture, you will prioritize this event and skip or postpone the meeting.
In polychronic cultures, therefore, a relationship with another person means more than a previously scheduled meeting. Often, the very idea of agreeing on a date for a meeting several weeks ahead seems odd; how can you know what life situation you are in weeks from now? For this reason, being late is also relative, which can cause some stress to Westerners who are keen on sticking to deadlines and timetables.
How to combine a flexible time orientation with a linear work culture?
If the other person comes from a culture that is polychronic, remember that there is no right or wrong time orientation, time is only experienced in different ways. As my Indian friend described it to me, she needs chaos to work logically.
Depending on the culture, we may experience stress that we are running late, or we may experience stress that we need to be on time.
So keep in mind:
It is important to explain that in your culture, punctuality is a sign of respect for another person's time. This often opens up the importance of punctuality for the other person, as it is important for them to nurture interpersonal relationships.
However, be sure to come in halfway and prepare yourself for the fact that, especially at the beginning, the other person may be a little late.
You can send him a friendly reminder the day before and plan tasks for yourself while you wait for the other person to arrive for the appointment.
As with many other cultural issues, remember that adapting to a new culture takes time, and especially understanding different time orientations is challenging at first.
Want to learn more about time orientation? Check out my trainings and coaching for developing your cultural intelligence!