Cultural Differences in the Workplace: Perceptions of Time September 07 2016, 4 Comments

by Erich Toll


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Working with other cultures: it's about time!

Just as different parts of the world have different time zones, they also have varying perceptions of time. In many cultures, people live in the present. They find the western view of time strange. For example, Arabs call Westerners slaves to the clock. When interacting with other cultures, it's wise to develop your sense of patience.

Here are 4 essential cultural differences in the workplace, perceptions of time:

1. Short Term vs Long Term - Just as different cultures have differences in values, cultures vary in whether they place emphasis on short term or long term. In the United States businesses have quarterly results and business plans. But in Japan, some corporations have goals that span 500 years.

One example tells of a Western businessman in the Middle East stressing a construction deadline. His Arab counterpart replies that his country has lived without the facility for thousands of years, and can continue to do so for a few more weeks.

2. Pacing, Pacing - Another consideration is pacing. Different people get things done at different rates of speed. In the West, a meeting is likely to turn immediately to business. But in many parts of the world, people might spend weeks, months or even years getting to know each other before doing business.

Other factors also influence pacing, from bureaucracy in China to the analytical decision-making of Latin America. It's important to be sensitive and patient. Further, it's a good idea to give some background regarding your deadline or urgency on a project.

3. Best Use of Time - People also differ in what they consider the appropriate use of time. A meeting in Brazil might start with a substantial period of conversation and coffee. To a German, this might be a waste of time. But to the Brazilian, they are accomplishing plenty, namely getting to know each other and enjoying a good cup of coffee. In the West, conversations generally have an underlying purpose. But in many other parts of the world, the conversation often is the purpose.

A related area involves focus. In the West, people tend to concentrate on one task at a time. But in the Middle East and Latin America, it's common to have more than one focus. For example, meetings are subject to frequent interruptions by phone calls or visitors.

4. Deadlines: Sand or Stone - Finally, it's necessary to examine the perception of deadlines. In a German train station, for example, an announcement might be made that a train will arrive—one minute late.

In many parts of the world, there is little understanding of a need to rush. For many people, deadlines are lines in the sand - there's always tomorrow. In the Middle East, deadlines can be ambiguous because only God knows the future. In Spanish, there is no exact translation for the word deadline.

Once again, it's helpful to explain your cultural background, and responsibilities to other parties.

Conclusion: time is our greatest gift, and one of the 7 essentials of cultural diversity in the workplace. Different people have different perceptions of time – and how to best use it. To work effectively with people from other cultures, you must master how they view and spend time.

What did I miss? Please leave your comments or additional tips below.