It was a beautiful afternoon at the Olduvaï Camp in Tanzania, and we climbed a little rock to watch the sunset on the Serengeti. The view was breathtaking, and you couldn’t see a telephone line, a building or anything man-made 360 degrees around.
For a few minutes, we were contemplating the nature in total silence when he turned to me and asked: “Do you know the difference between the Swiss and us, the Maasai?” Then, with his huge smile, he continued: “The Swiss have the watches, WE have the time!”
We burst into laughter, and I never forgot that moment!
Working with different cultures is an amazing experience, and it also has its challenges. How time is perceived from one country to another is one of them.
It is not a universal rule that you should answer an email in 15 minutes or you must attend a conference call while on holidays! Showing 10 minutes late for a meeting is not necessarily rude (actually, sometimes being on time can be) and starting an Opening General Session at 8:30 AM might force you to start your conference … without your international delegates!
One cultural dimension is very helpful to understand the relation to time from various individuals: monochronism vs polychronism. It has been widely described by American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T Hall in his book The Silent Language (1959), in which, as mentioned by Wikipedia: “Hall coined the term polychronic to describe the ability to attend to multiple events simultaneously, as opposed to “monochronic” individuals and cultures who tend to handle events sequentially.”
Let’s illustrate the point with a (slightly generalized) example: in France, you might speak about politics or soccer before the meeting starts; your cell phone might ring during the meeting; your assistant might come into the room to ask you to sign something urgent; when reaching point 4 on the agenda, you might remember something you forgot to mention at point 2 and want to come back to it, etc. In Germany, it’s quite the opposite, and German people might believe that it is impossible to work with French people who can’t concentrate and can’t be taken seriously … while French people might think that it is impossible to work with Germans because they are too dry and too serious. Guess what?! Both countries have great and successful companies … and are taking long breaks during summer!
In other words, one individual’s relation to time is deeply affected by her or his culture, there is no universal answer to it, and it is certainly not fully correlated to the level of professionalism of the person you are dealing with.
So, the next time you are frustrated about timing issues, first acknowledge it; second, try to understand what is “standard” in the business culture of the person you are interacting with; third, have a conversation about this with her/him and if all the above doesn’t work … remember the difference between the Swiss and The Masaaï!