How do different cultures perceive time?
Last year, the social media influencer and former Love Island contestant Mollie-Mae said in a podcast interview, “Beyoncé has the same 24 hours in the day that we do and I just think… you’re given one life and it’s up to you what you do with it.” Her comments sparked controversy, with many pointing out that how a wealthy celebrity such as Beyoncé is able to structure her day is quite different to, say, a single mother living in deprived circumstances.
Nonetheless, her comment tapped into a widespread sense that time is universal and the same for all of us. But is it? It might surprise you to know that different cultures conceptualise time differently – and how individuals experience time varies around the world.
Monochronic time versus polychronic time
Some cultures are organised around monochronic time while others favour polychronic. What does this mean?
This involves doing one thing at a time, sticking rigidly to schedules, and making thorough plans. People who favour this approach are task-oriented – that is, focused on the task in hand, and reluctant to let obstacles get in their way. Monochrons typically belong to Western cultures, as well as some Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (although these latter countries typically combine elements of both monochronic and polychronic approaches).
Within monochronic cultures, people tend to:
- Make detailed plans for the future
- Approach tasks individually where possible, rather than multitasking
- Frown upon being late
- Stay at work until everything is finished
- Meet deadlines
- Minimise small talk at work or business meetings
- Believe that each activity should have a precise beginning and end
In polychronic cultures, there is less emphasis on sticking to schedules. At work, people do several things at once without paying too much attention to time. There is greater emphasis on people, so family and social life is often valued ahead of work. Polychrons are prevalent in Latin American, African, and Middle Eastern countries. Polychronic approaches also involve:
- Not viewing lateness with disapproval
- Frequently changing or deleting items on to-do lists
- Investing time in building strong relationships with others
- Re-prioritising tasks and adjusting them based on people’s evolving needs
- Within businesses, being externally focused on customer satisfaction as opposed to internally focused on processes
- Believing that each activity or event should have an organic rather than prescribed beginning and end
Within a monochronic culture – such as the US – a business meeting would typically start on time, get to the point quickly, and achieve goals within a defined time frame. In a polychronic culture – such as Turkey – a business meeting might not have a pre-defined time frame. People might start the meeting by getting to know each other, with more time for introductions. The meeting might last as long as it takes to reach a satisfactory conclusion. The key difference between the two cultures is that monochrons tend to be by-the-clock whereas polychrons are more event or personality-oriented.
Past, present, and future orientation
Cultures also vary by time orientation, or the way they view different eras in time. For example, countries with long documented histories that have survived wars, had past achievements, or long-lasting monarchies often hold on to the past more than countries with relatively shorter histories. Different countries can be thought of as past-oriented, present-oriented, or future-oriented:
These tend to emphasise traditional values and ways of doing things. Management styles tend to be conservative and the pace of change or reform can be slow. These cultures value their history and believe that tradition is important. Examples of past-oriented cultures include Britain, Italy, China, and Japan.
These view the past as something finished and the future as uncertain or unknowable. Therefore, they tend to focus primarily on the present. Examples include many Latin American and African countries.
These tend to be optimistic about the future, often because they feel they can shape it. Planning features prominently, as opposed to simply going with the flow. Often, they might be young countries, the most obvious example being the US.
Linear time versus cyclical time
Yet another way to view time is as linear versus cyclical (which has some overlap with monochronic versus polychronic). Western cultures tend to view time as linear, with a clear beginning and end. Time is viewed as being limited in supply, which shapes how people structure their lives, especially at work, with schedules, milestones, and deadlines. People who don’t adhere to deadlines are often seen as having failed in some way. Linear-oriented people don’t regard the future as unknowable because they feel they are shaping it through meticulous planning.
This is reflected in the language Westerners use to talk about time – for example, wasting time, saving time, spending time – which is similar to how we might talk about financial matters. After all, many Westerners view time as money (to use Benjamin Franklin’s phrase).
By contrast, in many non-Western cultures, time may be viewed as cyclical and endless. Every day, the sun rises and sets, one season follows another, people grow old and die, but their children reiterate the process. Cyclical time isn’t a finite commodity – there is plenty of it. Time isn’t seen as racing away in a linear sequence but coming back around again in a circle. As a result, more emphasis is placed on doing things the right way, and maintaining good relationships, rather than meeting arbitrary deadlines.
Our perception of time shapes how we visualise it
Cultures observing linear and cyclic concepts of time both see the past as something we have left behind us and the future as something that lies before us. But whereas in a linear culture, the future might be visualised as a straight road leading from our feet to the horizon, a cyclic culture might visualise it as a curved road which takes in scenery and ultimately might lead back to conditions similar to what we experience right now.
Every country is different – so never assume
Every country is different, and it’s unwise to make assumptions. For example, Italy and Switzerland share a border but have quite different attitudes towards time. (Ditto Mexico and the US.) In Japan, it is normal for factory workers to work at speed to strict deadlines, but also for unhurried contemplation to be observed in Japanese gardens. If your business is operating across cultures, then it pays to understand the subtle cultural nuances that might impact your efforts. As always, Local In-Market Experts can guide you.
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