The people with the watches
Attitudes towards time can play a big part of an intercultural experience. Westerners moving into other cultures often say things like, “This place is frustrating… I never seem to be able to get more than 30% done of what I scheduled for the day!” A cliché in Africa and the Middle East is, “You Western people have the watches, but we have the time.” The ones concerned about time are the people who never seem to have enough of it, while the people that are less concerned about it seem to have all the time in the world. One reason for that is that “People-people” feel that they can make time for things. They tend to view time as a plentiful resource. The "people with the watches", on the other hand, tend to view time as a limited resource.
One of the keys to getting the most out of cultural diversity is to see differences as individual traits and to move away from stereotypes and gross generalizations. Arab Management meetings do start on time, some Germans do come in late, and some Swiss people do move appointments when an important inter-personal issue needs to be addressed.
But there are some things that can help us when time-oriented people move into a more people-focused culture.
‘Time’ People and ‘People’ People
The ‘time’ person says: Time is your most valuable asset to manage. The people person says: My relation with a person is more important than keeping an appointment. ‘People’ people will come late for a meeting or even miss an appointment, because another person walked into their office.
Both of these cultural preferences try to serve the same value: politeness. For a time-focused person, you are rude if you come late for a meeting because you kept a lot of people waiting and wasted their valuable time. For a people-focused person you are rude if you do not attend to the person in front of you. You know that the people waiting for you in a meeting will be busy attending to the people they have in front of them, and as soon as you get to the meeting, you will attend to each other.
People in ‘People’ oriented cultures often have extra things to do while they are waiting. We have been in meetings with senior officials in the Arab world where someone else comes into the office in the middle of our discussion, and the focus immediately shifts to the ‘new guy’. Then the official receives a phone call, and spends five minutes on it, and the ‘new guy’ will often either get a phone call himself (and accept it), or call someone else that he had been meaning to talk to. Usually the official and the ‘new guy’ get off the phone at the same time and regain their conversation right where they left off. Meanwhile, the person with a time-oriented focus who has not developed the appropriate behaviors for a people-oriented society is often idle during these exchanges, and finds it hard to pick up where he or she left off when the official’s focus comes back again.
If you are from a time-oriented society and you need to work in a people oriented environment, we have a couple of things you can do to become more effective.
1. Plan more flex-time into your day
If you plan less scheduled events in your day you will run into less frustration. It is crucial to leave more time in between appointments, not just for the sake of traffic, but especially because of interruptions. Expect for meetings to take 30% longer than you anticipated.
2. Be prepared for Interruptions
Chop up your daily activities into small chunks. Always have additional phone calls to make, papers to read, or concepts to work out while you wait. If you have enough of those little pieces of work with you, you do not need to waste any time if you end up waiting for others. The reality is that being in a people-oriented culture can take better preparation, in the form of contingency planning, than a time-oriented culture.
3. Hit the ‘Pause’ Button on Distractions
Don’t allow distractions to distract you! We have been in hundreds of meetings where phones ring, secretaries walk in, the ‘other guy’ comes in to ‘quickly ask a question,’ and is still there 20 minutes later… You can chose not to allow interruptions to interrupt you by pressing the ‘pause’ button. When the secretary walks in, pause! Focus your mind on the discussion: “How am I doing?” “Are my points clear?” “How is the other party responding?” Keep your mind occupied with the process and evaluate, regroup, and rehearse. Once the ‘distraction’ is gone, press the ‘play’ button. This will make you stronger in conversations, and result in more effective meetings.
These three behaviors are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to working in a people-oriented environment, and we haven’t even mentioned techniques for a people-oriented person to use in a time-oriented environment, but they are a good start.
Time Orientation is one of the 12 Dimensions of culture that are analyzed by the Cultural Mapping Inventory. To learn more about how this model can help you, please contact us.
*Editor's Note: The use of masculine pronouns in this article reflects the reality that the majority of meetings in government offices that KnowledgeWorkx has been a part of took place between men. This reality is changing in the Arab world, especially in countries like the U.A.E. that have focused on equipping women in their educational system.