It is easy to say “I am expanding my British company to Singapore”. But do you know how difficult it can be when you add culture difference in? Let’s look more into time and culture, a key aspect to consider when meeting potential partners. The purpose is not to categorise people into tiny boxes, but to be more mindful when considering others.
Time is constantly. We have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It is the same in Singapore, Mexico, Spain or Ghana. Yet, different cultures experience time with a different perspective. When expanding your business operations to a new market, be sure to take time into consideration when meeting business partners and speaking with clients.
Time and Culture
Time and culture can be categorised loosely into 3 variations: linear, multi-active and cyclical (reactive) time. The Lewis Model models the general culture of a country into a triangle diagram.
As much as it is easy to generalise that most Europeans see time linearly, you will realise that communication between a German and a Spaniard can be vastly different. This also applies to many countries in the same geolocation but different culture. E.g. Mexico and USA, Singapore and Vietnam, Australia and Papua New Guinea. Cultures perceive time differently, so let’s look deeper into the variations.
Another method to understand culture is the Hofstede’s Framework.
Countries that use linear time philosophy: USA, Switzerland, Germany, Anglo-Sazon countries like Scandinavia, UK, the Netherlands.
Countries under this variation view time in a straight line. Things happen one after another, in a logical and orderly manner. Only the future matters. The present is a result of the past, so is the future of the present.
In a capitalistic profit-focused society like the US, time is money. Viewing time in a linear manner helps to reduce uncertainty. The past is gone, but you can change the future. Everything you do now will determine the future. With proper statistics, you can predict, or even shape, the future. Hence, it is common for Americans to work backwards, knowing what their ideal goal is and to determine what they should do now.
E.g. I need my 401k when I retire. Considering that I have 30 years of working to do and a 4% p.a. interest, I need to save X amount per year. That is a logical orderly perception of time. Things are done in steps, backed with logic and facts.
Western Europe: Germany, Switzerland
Another example is in Europe. Switzerland worships time that they become the world’s best timepiece maker. A train leaving at 12:04 pm from Zürich HB will arrive at 12.49 pm in Luzern, on the dot. There are no surprises and it is easy to plan schedules logically. It is common to section time into programs, schedules, procedures and more. This, the culture believes, makes life more efficient, reduces time wastage and makes it easier for analysis.
E.g. For every Y minutes I invest in Task A, I can reduce Z minutes on Task B. Hence, I should invest more in Task A to increase the efficiency of the overall project.
Meetings and Discussions
Hence, you can imagine that when 2 people of linear time philosophy come together, the meeting is very efficient and planned well ahead. Key discussing points are laid out, a specific time for the meeting is set aside, discussions are direct, backed with facts and sticks to the agenda. The key is in written words (“black and white”) so that everything is archived factually. Words carry a heavyweight. Facts prevail over feelings.
Countries that use multi-active time philosophy: Hispanic America, Argentina, Mexico, Mediterranean countries, Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa, Arab countries.
Countries under this variation view time as an emotion. Things happen simultaneously but the most important thing is to use the time and build relationships with people. The present matters most.
Southern Europe: Spain, Portugal, Italy
Time is nothing but an emphasis on the current moment. That is evident in these societies where eating is almost a religious activity. It is not uncommon to have lunch for 2 hours in Italy or have a 3-hour dinner at 11 pm in Spain. Eating is a form of communication, connecting and building relationships. Hence, lots of time is dedicated to it.
There are no schedules for time. Punctuality is not a big thing in the culture. The use of time is considered successful when they manage to build a positive relationship with the other party. Everything is irrelevant – business together, the amount of potential deal, etc. The important aspect is the connection between both parties.
Meetings and Discussions
Hence, meetings of 2 people of multi-active time philosophy are different. They spend more time getting to know each other (family, friends, general life) with minimal time allocation. Meetings stray away from the agenda easily as the focus is connecting emotionally with the other. Hence, body and spoken language are very important. Words carry less weight than body language.
Countries that use cyclical time philosophy: Vietnam, Bhutan, Japan, China. (Southeast Asia, East Asia)
Countries under this variation view time as a cycle. There is no start or end, everything is a continuous cycle of life and death. This philosophy is linked to Buddhism and Eastern religion, where reincarnation is understood.
Because life is seen as a continuous cycle, the past, present and future become a lump of blur. Everything is interconnected. The past creates the future and the future defines the present. Hence, decisions take a longer time to be defined because you have to consider the past, present and future. As nothing is actually really defined, you look at events and plans from the perspective of principles (原则). The culture focuses on indirect communication and relationship building.
Meetings and Discussions
Meetings between 2 people of the cyclical culture are vastly different. Firstly, time is seen as a form of respect, so it is important to be early. Next, the meeting focuses on relationship building and physical meeting. This is also where the famous Chinese “guanxi” (关系) is created. It is common to have business talks over a meal, but business issues are almost never discussed until the last moments. Words carry minimal weight, as the focus is on building relationships. Promises are seen as useful suggestions. Even black and white legal contracts are not 100% absolute and clear.
In general, like culture, when similar time cultures come together for meetings, it is fine. The issue arises when different cultures come together. A Chinese, German and Italian come together to discuss a potential collaboration. The Chinese arrive 30min early, German on time and Italian 45min late. Wasting time is seen as a huge disrespect to the other party and that is just the first issue. Next, the cultures focus on different aspects – business agenda vs building relationships. There is also a difference in the discussion: speaking about factual information vs sharing feelings and opinions. It is easy to misunderstand the other party’s intentions and cause a negative relationship between everyone.