Understanding approaches to time

You are in a meeting with a client in the Middle East and you are getting frustrated. They keep answering their phone, they are flicking through papers on their desk and now they are welcoming an uninvited visitor into the room to discuss something irrelevant. Are they being rude? No, they are doing what comes naturally to them: multitasking. The Middle East is typically a polychronic culture. This means many things are dealt with at once and relationships are more important than deadlines.

Appreciating the way your colleagues in other cultures view time can go a long way to cross-cultural understanding. Monochronic cultures – the USA, Canada, Britain, much of western Europe – see time as linear. One job is tackled at a time. The task is more important than the relationship, so meetings and appointments start and finish on schedule. Deadlines are taken seriously and it is considered polite to give another person your undivided attention. Personal time is kept separate from working time.

In Arab cultures, Latin America, Brazil and many African countries, the culture is polychronic. Time blurs; tasks are often delayed and results are achieved by conversation and discussion. Your contact may arrive late for a meeting, not because they want to keep you waiting but because they value their relationship with the person whom they were with before you.

The approach to time has an effect on all aspects of business and while you may not agree with the way things are done, an understanding of why they are done in a certain way will help you both to work more effectively globally and to manage virtual teams in different cultures.

Polychronic Cultures

A polychronic culture, in which relationships are so important, will appear chaotic to a North American, especially when it comes to meetings. Time will be devoted to drinking coffee and to small talk and maintaining the relationship will be the end goal. Plans will change without notice and contracts may be fluid. So do not schedule back-to-back meetings; do make time for small talk; and do enter negotiations knowing that things could change. If you are working with a virtual team, try to Skype or conference call rather than relying on the written word.

Monochronic Cultures

People in monochronic cultures are much lower context communicators; issues need to be explained and put in writing. Communication will be via email and memos rather than picking up the phone or dropping into someone’s office. In these cultures, try to set an agenda for a meeting and follow it, and appreciate that a contract may be seen as binding, once it is in writing. Understand that time is regarded as a limited and valuable commodity.

A culture’s approach to time is not necessarily related to productivity; a much deeper cultural understanding is needed to build a long-term relationship in any given country. In South Korea, for example, people work longer hours than in almost any other country but are not correspondingly efficient. This is because corporate culture is such that surfing the internet, gossiping, trading shares or even playing cards are all seen as part of the long working day. In countries where life is tough and resources limited, for example, much of sub-Saharan Africa, people tend to live for the moment rather than some time in the future, as the future is difficult to plan for. Time spent waiting – for example, for public transport, or in line in a shop – will be seen as an opportunity to socialise, rather than a nuisance as it would in a Western culture.

All kinds of things influence the way time is managed around the world. Climate, for example, or the expectation of public holidays and annual leave. In some cases, the simple geography of a place, for example, developing countries where people may build their day around a long and unpredictable commute to work. So do take time to understand how your global colleagues view time – and try to build in a little flexibility in your own approach.


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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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