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!


Multi-Channel Customer Communication

The internet and more recently the smart phone and social media revolution have dramatically changed the way we research, market, sell and talk about products and services. We have all very quickly added these to our communication repertoire and it’s easy to forget how ‘young’ some of our most established brands are. Amazon was founded back in 1994, Google started its commercial operation in 1998, in 2004 Mark Zuckerberg worked on The Facebook and only five years ago Apple presented its very first iPhone.

This fast acceptance and adaptation challenges organisations to provide the right communication channels and be innovative and effective in their application. One of Lexica’s clients is Cologne based ITyX, a specialist in digital communication solutions. A spin off from the University of Koblenz, they have focused on incorporating Artificial Intelligence (AI) methodologies, such as neural networks, to process incoming information and manage knowledge. 

If organisations receive hundreds of customer emails or social media feeds every day, the company’s Mediatrix RESPONSE is capable of analysing the content, routing it to the correct team, while providing a link to the customer’s details on the CRM and even suggesting potential responses. This benefits customers in that they receive a quick and comprehensive response to their enquiry, while the company achieves average handling time decreases by up to 55%.

Often it is possible to already find answers to queries on a company’s website in the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section. Organisations provide, for example, a set of questions & answers from previous interactions with customers. Other solutions, such as ITyX’s Mediatrix, provide a dynamic Self-Service that draws on all incoming email communication and updates the FAQs accordingly without need for any administrative input.

Websites for products and services have evolved with new technologies becoming available all the time. Initially more like an online brochure, even the smallest company can now afford e-commerce facilities, blogging became a trend and today it’s all about Twitter, Facebook & Co. You can embed videos in your website and add chat windows for additional, live customer support online. Mediatrix WEBSCOUT from ITyX enables organisations to support their online customers with pro-active service by live chat, but also co-browsing. This means that when requested by a website visitor, the customer service representative can jointly visit certain pages, explain and also help fill in information online.

Amazon is a company that combines technology with great processes and as a result require little customer service. However, I’m sure you have visited websites with FAQ sections that don’t provide you with the answer you were looking for. Instead of continuing on the digital channel, you then have to revert to a traditional one such as the telephone. Or you may have found a blog from other users who seem more knowledgeable than the company itself. If emails don’t get answered by a company within a day or so, we switch back to other channels. And even worse, if a public sector organisation provides me with no email or telephone contact, but invites me to join them on Twitter, that’s a bit like waving a red flag to a bull!

Anyway, it would be interesting to hear from you about your multi-channel experiences, the highs and lows and maybe what you think the future will look like.

Further information about ITyX and its adaptive, multi-lingual Mediatrix module solutions are on http://www.ityx.co.uk/. You can also visit VERA, which is their entry email response solution for companies that deal with smaller volumes.

A French View of North East England

Hélène Beaugy grew up in Chalon-Sur-Saone in Burgundy,France and today lives in Jesmond, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK.

She started studying for a career in languages with a degree in English Language and Cultural Studies at the University of Dijon. An Erasmus exchange with the University of Northumbria enabled her to spend some time in Newcastle, where she moved to in 1999.

Following the completion of her undergraduate studies, Hélène stayed in the North East and started a career in teaching, first at a school in Lanchester and later at Central Newcastle High School. During that time she continued her formal studies and completed a Masters in French and Spanish at the University of Northumbria.   

After a 10-year career in teaching, Helene decided on a career change and in 2010 launched her company ‘Experience Northumbria’. She now offers tours in French, Spanish and English to overseas visitors, specialising in outdoor activities.

We wanted to find out from Helene how she found living in North East England .

What differences did you expect regarding the way of life/culture?
I had already spent some time in the UK on school exchanges and working as an au pair in Chester. So I had a vague idea about living in the UK. However, I was unprepared for the strength of the accent in Newcastle. It was unbelievable! The first two days people had to repeat everything at least once. It took a bit of time to tune your ear to the English and then the accent and after around three days my understanding was starting to get better.

How did you find the initial settling in period?
It did not take long to settle in – I took to it like a duck to water as I always liked Britain and the English language.

When I first came to Newcastle, I asked the University to find me a home stay. I got on fantastically with my Geordie landlady, who lived in High Heaton. She was really helpful and was already used to foreign students. She took me around and explained how the buses worked and was very kind and friendly. That really was a good start and it made me fall in love with the North East. The people here are very friendly.

What are the things you most enjoy living in the UK and what do you miss from back home?
I like speaking English – I like the sound of it and can’t really explain it. Also living here is a process as you’re always learning more, you find new films, new literature etc.

What I miss from France is public services that work. We do pay more taxes, they’re just more re-invested in efficient public services. For example, I pay more for public transport in Newcastle than in Paris. Also the trains don’t work here. A typical example would have been a trip to London, where we arrived at the station and I was looking everywhere for a button to press, so that the door opens. In the end, I realised I had to open the window and open the door from the outside. In France we had trains like that before the war. I’m not saying that there are no problems in France as we do have a lot of strikes. But when the system is working, it’s working and I’d expect for example a 800km trip to do in 3 hours.

Otherwise there’s not much I miss. I get the chance to visit home and then get the best of both worlds. I can fly from Newcastle to Paris with EasyJet and then take the train home, which is quite affordable.

How did you find making friends? And how did you this? Was it easier or more difficult than back in France?
It was relatively easy to make friends. First I met lots of people at university and then later at work. There were also people looking for French conversation groups and I made very good friends through that. It wasn’t harder than making friends in France, just a different way.

Do you recall situations that you initially interpreted wrong? If yes, what happened, what did you think and what did it later turn out to be?
I remember being called ‘pet’ all the time. This really felt invasive, but then I realised people say that to everybody and then I found it very sweet.

I also remember my godson coming to Newcastle who also stayed here for four years. We took a taxi to the Central Station and the driver, who had the broadest Geordie accent, was talking to us and we believe was trying to make a joke. We didn’t say anything, but we couldn’t understand a word throughout the whole journey!

How does the communication style in the UK differ to France?
I think people are very cautious, both in the topics and also in getting their own point across. As a foreigner you do get away with saying things a bit stronger. People never tell you that you shouldn’t do this here, but you notice their reaction and then you try to be a bit more diplomatic.

I organise for example philosophical evenings, where everybody brings some food that we share and I prepare a conversation menu. My continental friends – for example from Spain, Italy, Germany – all engage in heated arguments and go far in defending their strong ideas. I recently heard an interview with the French academic Alan De Botton on Radio 4 and he said that the best evenings are those with friends in deep conversations.

The topics the British avoid are for example politics and private life. You would need to be very close to somebody that they tell you more about the latter. People also don’t get emotional easily while on the continent people are more at ease with showing their emotions.

What values were you brought up with at home?
I had a relatively strict upbringing and we were taught honesty, reliability such as “my word is my bond”, the value of education, kindness, politeness, respect to elders and everybody else around you.

If people aren’t polite, I am not interested in them, no matter who they are – either French, British or any other nationality.

Do you think that children in the UK are taught the same values? If not, what do you think is important or the right way to be for the British?
As a nation, I don’t believe the British see the value of education as important. Things you know have to be more useful rather than general and cultural knowledge.

I also think that British society punishes family, women who bring up children. There is a lot of pressure to be everything – a good mother and good in a business. In France it’s easier to work part-time or stay at home longer. The family is an important value in life and a lot is done to help. Children are also more left free to look after themselves, whereas in the UK it’s too overregulated, they have really gone over the top. The litigation culture forces the state to cover their backs and you end up more and more with a nanny state.

Here I also believe that people are very individualistic. It’s how to make your life, your money, it’s not so much about solidarity. The continental model is more about society as a whole.

What is also strange here is the drinking in order to get drunk. On the continent you may end up drunk after an evening with friends, but it’s not what you set out to do. In 1999 we didn’t have the binge drinking culture, but it’s appearing in France now too. I can’t understand the motivation to do that and I also don’t think that it’s just the price of alcohol as I think a pint of beer for example is still quite expensive. That is a too simple explanation and I think it’s a form of destructive behaviour.

Also here boys and girls go out in separate groups, whereas on the continent we generally go out in mixed groups.

Would you work in another country again? And if yes, what country/ countries would interest you and why?
I would very much like to work in German or Spanish speaking countries as I would like to experience real life there rather than just holiday life. Also it would help improve my language skills.

Do you believe working abroad is useful for your career? If yes, how?
I wanted to study overseas as I also wanted a local qualification that would mean something to a UK employer. Also it shows that you have an openness of mind and that you’re not afraid to uproot, to go out and do it. That you’re not afraid of challenges.

What characteristics do you believe somebody should have, if they want to work/move overseas?
Open mindedness, tolerance. I think that nothing is ever as good as home, but you find out how people do things differently and sometimes better. If you also are outgoing, then the rest just happens.

What is your favourite food & drink here?
Yorkshire Pudding, bacon; and elderflower cordial – it doesn’t exist in France.

What places would you recommend people to see who come to either visit or live here?
Durham, Hadrian’s Wall, Coast and Castles such as Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, Holy Island.

What do you think people should definitely avoid? For example things you shouldn’t do, not talk about, food you shouldn’t try, places or activities that are just too weird for foreigners
I would avoid the Bigg Market with visitors as it’s just too unbelievable. Also if you go to a football match where England plays your country, don’t go and support yours loudly. I’d avoid tripe, which is something Geordie.

What steps would you advice somebody to take before moving to the UK?
If I had to do it again, I would start looking more at the Embassy/Consular website to find out more about the administrative steps of moving to the UK.

Are there any books, websites, films, tv programmes or networks that you would recommend to somebody moving to the UK?
I would recommend British tv comedies such as Faulty Towers, Blackadder, Father Ted and Only Fools & Horses. There are also films that accurately portray British life which can be either positive or depressive, such as Ken Loach films or the Calendar Girls.

Thank you for the interview!