Time to Think about Time

Train clock_ExtraSmallBeing on time is not always easy for me. This may sound strange as I am German and therefore punctuality should come natural to me. From a young age, we are taught in Germany that being on time is the right way to be – it means you are reliable and respectful of other people’s time.

Even when running just a few minutes late, I do still feel bad about this due to my German cultural values. When standing in a queue, I immediately wonder why there is one in the first place and if there’s a process that needs to be improved. Even when it is only minutes, the waiting time immediately feels like ages and as ‘wasting’ valuable time. However, somebody else in the same queue might think it’s great to have a little break or use the opportunity to chat with the other people in the queue.

In a task focused and time critical business environment, we use agendas that are usually followed. We aim to stick to deadlines and key milestones. When there’s silence in a meeting, it may feel uncomfortable and somebody generally makes a comment just to break it. Decisions are made quickly to ‘save time’, not to ‘miss the boat’ or appear indecisive.

So what does time actually mean and does it mean the same to everybody? You probably have friends that are generally on time and others that always make you wait. Elizabeth Taylor even made a point of arriving late for her own funeral.

In some professions that deal with hard data – such as accountancy – it is important that people stick to deadlines and do one job at a time. In others – such as creative positions or when working with people – time pressures are taken away so that issues can be looked at from all angles and relationships become more important.

The time we can measure by seconds, minutes or hours is called ‘clock time’. But there’s also ‘nature time’ – the seasons, day and night, the lunar calendar – more important to those working in agriculture, farming or fishing. We also adjust our clock time twice a year to nature time to get the most out of the summer’s daylight hours.

And then there’s our ‘internal clock’ – but internal clocks are not the same for everybody – some people may be so called larks who prefer to get up early, while others – the so called owls – would rather have a lie in and stay up later. If you have young children or teenagers, you may notice the differences in how easy or not it is to get them out of bed in the morning. And our internal clock can, of course, get disturbed by travel jet lag or shift work.

Our attitude to time is both very personal, but also deeply ingrained culturally. We may not be aware of how we have been taught through generations, at school and at work how to approach time. This influences our view of what’s ‘normal’ and the ‘right way to be’.

As a country and as individuals, do we plan long-term or short-term? How do we look at and talk about the past, present and future? When working internationally and with multi-cultural teams, those differences in views can make an impact on expectations, leading to miscommunication, frustration and in a worst case to a breakdown of trust and relationships.

An Italian may find the Swiss very impatient and inflexible. A Mexican may find Germans rather cold and unfriendly. And even Americans in Britain get sometimes frustrated with the small talk when they just want to get down to business.

In western cultures, such as the US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and Northern Europe, it is important to be on time and on schedule. They are the countries of the clock makers and fully integrated transport systems, where manufacturing and service operations are planned to be as efficient as possible and everything is expected to run like a perfectly oiled machine. These are countries where time can be made, saved, spent, wasted, won and lost.

The anthropologist Edward T Hall described this in his concept of monochronic and polychromic cultures. In our western, monochronic culture, time is tangible as it can be scientifically measured. We have a linear vision of time and as a consequence we generally do one thing at a time – sequentially. Our focus is on the task ahead and therefore we do not appreciate interruptions. This depends upon your ‘type’, but also how you were taught to best manage your time.

However, in polychronic cultures, there is always plenty of time available and people therefore have more of a focus on building relationships, they don’t mind being disturbed and are used to doing various activities simultaneously.

The linguist Richard D. Lewis developed three concepts of time: Linear-active time which could be compared to the monochronic approach. His multi-active time (or also described as‘event time’) is prevalent in Arab and Latin cultures and has at its core relationships and transactions between humans. The right moment or the actual meeting is more important, not the time an event starts and finishes.

I recently chatted with a Brazilian friend about time. She lived in the UK for a number of years and returned to her home town of Sao Paulo. I would describe her as very punctual and reliable and I wanted to find out what in her view was an acceptable time for friends wait for each other. She said it depended on the situation. If you were to meet up with one friend, you should try and meet around the agreed time. However, if there’s a group of you out and you meet at 8pm and some are busy with other things, it’s perfectly fine to catch up even hours later.

According to Lewis, cyclic time is prevalent in Asian cultures and he writes: “Americans see time passing without decisions being made or actions performed as having been ‘wasted’. Asians do not see time as racing away unutilised in a linear future, but coming around again in a circle, where the same opportunities, risks and dangers will represent themselves when people are so many days, weeks or months wiser”.

Does that mean that in Asian cultures people do not value punctuality? In China or Singapore punctuality is also valued. Production is managed in a linear way, with the terms ‘Lean Manufacturing’ or ‘Total Quality Management’ championed by Japanese companies.

The cyclic time view, however, will still comes into play when building relationships or during a decision making process, as the focus is on reflection rather than action. Hierarchy may also play a part as it may depend on the person and their status, which will decide who waits for whom.

So what influences our perception of ‘time’? We may seek origins in different cultures’ approach dependent on the region’s climate, the country’s religion, history or industrial/economic development.

The American psychologist Robert V. Levine dedicated a whole book to ‘A Geography of Time’, in which he described how he measured the pace of life in 31 countries.  By comparing walking speeds, postal times and clock accuracy in similar cities, he found that the fastest three were Switzerland, Ireland and Germany, with the most relaxed life found in Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico (England came 6th, the USA 16th).

But even within countries, we can find different paces – life varies in the countryside to urban environments or regionally such as New York or Massachusetts in the north east of the United States to southern states like Florida or Texas.

In 2002, the Morgenroth Zeit-Project measured the walking speed in various German cities. They identified the ‘protestant’ cities of Hannover, Dresden and Stuttgart as the fastest cities, while the more relaxed walkers lived in the ‘catholic’ cities of Trier, Saarbrücken and Passau. The walking speed results also correlated with the response time of emails sent to local job centres and overall the ‘faster cities’ also had a higher GDP per capita and higher average earnings of their citizens.

Are you experiencing challenges because of somebody’s personal attitude to time? Or is it a totally different cultural appreciation of time that you’re finding very hard to work with. Or is everybody just struggling as nothing can be planned time perfectly due to external influences such as traffic or weather?

I hope this has given you an alternative perspective on time and maybe a more relaxed attitude to your ‘late’ friends and colleagues.

We would love to hear about your own experiences and practical tips of how to make the best out of tricky time situations!