What time is it? …and does it matter?

In American culture we value the clock.  We punch the clock to mark the time we are and are not working.  While on the job, we generally dedicate one block of time to one specific task.  Meetings are scheduled precisely with expectations that everyone will attend at the appointed time.  We see projects and tasks on a timeline.  We are a monochronic society.

This is a great system when everyone is in sync.  If it were the only way of being, it would be easy to understand each other as we know that each of us is working on one project for a specific time and that specific blocks of time are valued and dedicated to specific events.

But that’s not the case.

Another way of thinking exists in many cultures where we value the relationships more than the clock.  If the right people are in the room to make a project work, we push ahead on the task at hand regardless of what the clock says.  We work on multiple projects in concurrence without concern for finishing one before another.  Our sense of time is more like a circle with different processes producing our end product based not on the timeline, but on the needs of the people around us.  This is a polychronic society.

Neither way of thinking about time—polychronic and monochronic—is considered better.  They both have their strengths and weaknesses.  The real challenge is when the two cultural philosophies collide.  For example, a monochronic American business person is easily frustrated by the fact that his polychronic Latin American colleague is always late to meetings.  The American may feel like his counterpart doesn’t value the project because he doesn’t value the timing of meetings; when in fact, the opposite may be true.  The Latin American colleague, having grown up in a culture that sees time as circular with opportunities to address things as they come up, may have already worked diligently on the project in advance of the meeting, and ended up being late to the prescribed time because another business relationshp was in front of him at that point in time.  He may very well have been working through his side of the tasks in a polychronic way.

This is where an understanding of cross-cultural communication becomes very important.  By recognizing the two different ways of being, the two business people can accept the differences and look at ways to reap the benefits of having a greater diversity on their team.

Next time you are in a situation where your concept of time doesn’t seem to match that of a colleague, try and think of it from a cross-cultural perspective.  Is he getting his work done, but in a slightly different order than what you would expect?  Are the relationships more important than time?  Does that individual come from a polychronic background?  

You may find your answer has less to do about time and more about culture.