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Tempus Fugit
By Mary van der Boon
(his article first appeared in the XPat Journal)

"Ordinary people think merely how they will spend their time -
a person of intellect tries to use it."
Arthur Schopenhauer

A company in the Netherlands is looking for a French partner. A Dutch businessman travels to Toulouse to discuss possibilities with a promising French prospect. He has an appointment for 10:30 a.m., and arrives promptly but is kept waiting for 20 minutes. Once inside, he must answer many personal questions about his trip, his family, his perceptions of the French countryside, and so on. The Frenchman, who has left the door open, is constantly interrupted by subordinates and colleagues needing advice or requiring him to sign something. He even accepts a call from his mother, and talks for several minutes. No business matters are raised, and after 45 minutes the Frenchman invites his guest to lunch. The Dutchman is irritated and confused: "Don’t these people ever do any work? Now I’ll be late for my next appointment."

When it is the Frenchman’s turn to visit his Dutch counterpart, he is careful not to be late, since he has heard the Dutch like to start on time. Still, he is unavoidably delayed by ten minutes. When he is ushered into the Dutchman’s office, he is told "a pity, now we only have 20 minutes". The Frenchman is taken aback, but thinks, "He can’t be serious!" After a most perfunctory inquiry into his trip, the Dutchman immediately raises the business issues to be discussed. There are no interruptions, as the Dutchman has instructed the switchboard to hold all calls, and there is a ‘do not disturb’ sign on his (closed) door. The Frenchman gets the distinct impression that he is dealing with an unimportant representative of an unsuccessful firm. After 20 minutes of discussion the Dutchman stands up, sees his guest to the door and thanks him for the visit. The Frenchman is irritated and confused: "He didn’t even offer to take me to lunch! And it’s not like he has anything better to do."

In this case, both parties behaved correctly according to their own cultural programming – for the relationship-oriented, polychronic Frenchman, it is perfectly acceptable, indeed desirable, to do many things at once. In addition, since relationships are central in every situation, it is important to get to know your business associates on a personal basis before you start discussing formal matters.

For the Dutchman, who is both task-oriented and monochronic, time is money and appointments are strictly scheduled and enforced. Directness is also highly valued in Dutch business, and it is not appropriate to show too much personal interest in one’s business acquaintances.

The official term for the study of time is chronemics, which measures how communication is affected by a culture or individual’s conception and use of time. It is the study of how we perceive, structure, react to and interpret time. Why is lateness in one culture a chronic insult, while it is not even noticed in others?

"Time talks. It speaks more plainly than words. The message it conveys comes through loud and clear...It can shout the truth where words lie." Edward Hall

According to sociologist Edward Hall, the chronemic world is divided into monochronic and polychronic cultures. Monochronic people see time as a measurable, quantifiable entity, something with real weight and value. The strongest characteristic of monochronic people is that they do one thing at a time, and hate to be interrupted. Monochronic people are not so interested in relationships, but rather in goals, tasks and results. Polychronic people, on the other hand, see time as a general guideline, something without substance or structure. Polychronic cultures love to do many things at once, and live for interruptions. Relationships and people are central to every polychronic activity. Characteristics of these orientations are outlined in the following table:

Monochronic People Polychronic People
do one thing at a time do many things at once
concentrate well are highly distractible and subject to interruptions
take time seriously consider time commitments an objective to be achieved, if possible
low context, need information high context, have information
are committed to the job are committed to the people
adhere religiously to plans change plans often and easily
are concerned with not disturbing others are more concerned with others closeness than privacy
seldom borrow or lend borrow and lend easily
emphasize promptness base promptness on the relationship
Northern European cultures African, Arab, Asian, South American & Mediterranean cultures
U.S.A., the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, U.K., Scandinavia Brazil, Syria, China, Nigeria, France, Italy, Spain, India, Colombia

There is very little understanding or sympathy for the opposing point of view, as we saw with our encounter between the Dutch and the French. In fact it would not be excessive to state that the frustrations caused by differing orientations to time is the most common form of culture shock. We all have an involuntary clock ticking inside us: what is a reasonable amount of time until we receive a reply to an email or letter? How long may your boss keep you waiting? Your sister? Your best friend? And how do we react when someone violates this implicit, undeclared but critical time boundary? Americans think that without activity and variation, boredom will set in. For Westerners, to be inactive is to be lazy, un-ambitious and wasteful. Novelty and variety prevent boredom. In Eastern cultures, however, too much activity and variety may be a sign of inadequate thought, reflection and maturity.

So Who’s the Fastest, Anyway?

American social psychologist Robert Levine is a clock-watcher who's taken his fascination with time and turned it into a career. In the course of his studies he discovered that some cultures don't even use clocks. They schedule their day on what he calls 'event time': after lunch, before sunset or, like the locals in Burundi, 'let's meet when the cows come home.' An extreme example of this cultural difference can be found among the Sioux Indians. In this language, there is no word for time, late or waiting. The Hopi Indians also pay very little attention to time. They believe that each thing, whether a person, plant, or animal has its own time system.
Levine also observed that for other cultures, time is, literally, money: they break their days down into five-minute blocks, and experience considerable levels of stress if these self-imposed deadlines are not met.

Levine began measuring how we spend our time by figuring out where on Earth people live the fastest and the slowest. He figured how quickly pedestrians walk 20 meters, checked how accurate their public clocks were, and how long it took to buy a stamp at the nearby post office. Then he ranked the countries by speed, as follows:

1 Switzerland

2 Ireland

3 Germany

4 Japan

5 Italy

6 England

7 Sweden

8 Austria

9 Netherlands

10 Hong Kong

11 France
12 Poland

13 Costa Rica

14 Taiwan

15 Singapore

16 U.S.A.

17 Canada

18 South Korea

19 Hungary

20 Czech Republic

21 Greece

22 Kenya
23 China

24 Bulgaria

25 Romania

26 Jordan

27 Colombia

28 Thailand

29 Brazil

30 Mexico

31 Indonesia

Some of the findings were so surprising to Mr. Levine that he checked them twice. For instance, that Switzerland was the speediest country on earth (God made time and the Swiss made the clock) was almost a given, but Ireland as number two? The Irish placed first in the walking fastest category, pulling up their average. Also unexpected was Italy in fifth (one wag interjected that perhaps Rome was built in a day, after all!). More studies showed that the Italians work every bit as quickly as the Japanese or the Americans, but they enjoy their down time more, and are able to shut off their work on weekends, giving a more leisurely impression. Japan was the only non-European country in the top five.

Mr. Levine’s studies upheld certain assumptions held by interculturalists from Hall to Hofstede, that climate has considerable effect on our attitude to time. Warmer countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia came off slower in Levine’s indexes, as they do in many other studies.

Dealing with Difference

Acknowledging that such stark contrasts exist in time orientation, how does one adjust to living and working in cultures with a different chronemic pattern to one’s own? A few simple guidelines:

Polychronic in a monochronic world:

Say you are a Brazilian assigned to the Netherlands. Bear in mind that Levine discovered that the average Brazilian student defines "lateness" for an event as approximately 33 minutes after the scheduled time. It is important therefore to grasp how serious monochronic people are about deadlines and punctuality, in particular the efficient and pragmatic Dutch. You may have to move your watch up half an hour to ensure you are arriving at scheduled activities reasonably on time. Remind yourself to phone ahead if you are delayed by even 10 minutes, and if you have kept someone waiting, even for a brief period of time, apologize profusely and offer some plausible excuse for this rudeness. Ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Monochronic in a polychronic world:

For the Dutchman sent to Indonesia, time orientation plays a crucial role in cultural adjustment. Polychronic Indonesians are very flexible with time commitments (in fact time is often referred to as ‘jam karet’, or ‘rubber time’. Time is often seen as a limitless pool ). Because of the extreme importance of status and hierarchy in Indonesia, it is unthinkable that you express dissatisfaction at being kept waiting by someone of higher rank. However, being monochronic, you will be very disturbed at ‘wasting your time’, be it in someone’s outer office, an airport, meeting room, etc. Always try to ensure that you have work or reading material with you, something ‘useful’ to do with your time. This greatly lessens the feelings of stress caused by ineffectual use of one’s time, and allows you to be gracious when the wait finally ends.

And as for the quote at the beginning of this article: well, Schopenhauer was German, after all….