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Time & Culture


Time & Culture

There are cultural variations in how people understand and use time.  Researchers have found that individuals are divided in two groups in the ways they approach time.  Monochronic individuals are those who prefer to complete one task at a time.  For them, task-oriented time is distinguished from socio-emotional time.  In other words, there is a time to play and a time to work.  These individuals value punctuality, completing tasks and keeping to schedules.  They view time as if it were linear, that is, one event happening at a time.  Examples of monochronic cultures include the US, Israel, Germany and Switzerland.

Polychronic individuals, on the other hand, are more flexible about time schedules; they have no problem integrating task-oriented activities with socio-emotional ones.  For them, maintaining relationships and socializing are more important than accomplishing tasks.  These individuals usually see time in a more holistic manner; in other words, many events may happen at once.  Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are places where polychronic orientation prevails.

The difference in time orientation is reflected in the complaints of US business people conducting business in Saudi Arabia or in Mexico.  A big source of frustration for them is the difficulty in getting through a meeting's agenda.  That is because in these countries meetings begin with an extended socializing time in which time is spent establishing social rapport; something that is seen as a “time waster” in most US businesses.

Something else for a manager in another country to keep in mind is that some cultures value a high context communication style while others value a low context style.  In high context cultures, information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person.  Behavioral rules are implicit, in other words, the context is supposed to give you the cues you need in order to behave appropriately.  In these cultures, members tend to use a more indirect style of communication.  Examples of societies that value this communication style include Japan, Korea, China and many of the Latin American countries.

In low context cultures, information is part of and conveyed through the verbal context of the communication.  The rules and expectations are explained and discussed; individuals tend to prefer a more direct communication style.  Examples of countries that would prefer this communication style include the United States and most European countries. 


Another cultural dimension to consider is individualism versus collectivism. In individualistic societies, the goals of individuals are valued more highly than the goals of the group.  Individuals are rewarded for behaving independently, making their own plans and working toward achieving their personal goals.  In these societies, individuals are hired and promoted largely based on individual achievement and qualifications.  Examples of individualistic societies include the United States and Northern and Western European countries.

In collectivistic societies, on the other hand, the needs of the group are considered more important than those of the individual.  In these societies, kinship ties are much stronger and may take precedence over expertise over matters of appointments and promotions.  Collectivism is a value in Asian, African as well as South American cultures.

It is obvious from just this brief outline of underlying cultural differences that in order for an international manager to achieve company goals and build successful teams overseas, that communication with co-workers and counterparts requires much more than just a common language.