Managing Time In Different Cultures

Meeting deadlines and managing project workflows when working with people from different nationalities can be one of the most challenging aspects of managing intercultural business relationships. Different cultures have very different perspectives when it comes to the importance and flow of time.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. Somebody asked me recently how different cultures think about time, and I thought the best way to explain that would be with a short story.

Recently, I moderated a panel, here in the United States. In order to prepare for the panel I put together about seven slides that introduced the topic, which was the global economy, and each of the panel members. But, when I ran those slides by the panel coordinator, she was really concerned that I would take too much time. I had seven slides, she told me I had only four minutes, to go through the entire introduction.

So we start the panel presentation, everything goes great. We get through the introduction, less than four minutes, and we start the panelist’s portion. Now, during the panelist’s presentation, she is sitting right up in front, where I can see her, holding up cards to show us how much time is left. 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5… 2… and the last card, a big zero on it, to show that we are done. You have to stop now. So we end up wrapping up the panel at exactly 60 minutes, when the panel coordinator comes up to the podium and makes it clear that we’re done, even though there were still a lot of people raising their hands and wanting to ask questions. This is typical in the United States, and few other Western cultures where time is so important — it rules all.

Now lets compare this to my very first experience teaching, offering  a presentation, in Asia. I went there with all of these preconceptions about how important time is. As I was preparing for the presentation, I asked the Project Manager, how much time should I take and he said, “ohh… you know, about an hour. That’s fine. You do whatever you think is right.” Well, being American, I planned exactly for one hour.

Now, the next day, when the presentation starts, I’m really stressed out. Because it’s 10 o’clock, we are supposed to be starting, and people are just starting to show up. I hurriedly asked the Project Manager, “Do you want me to shrink the presentation, because we are late, I could pull it down to 45 minutes or so.” And he says, “Oh, you know, if you think that’s right, you do whatever you think is best. 45 minutes would be fine.” So, on the fly, I cut pieces out and we wrap it up in 45 minutes.

The presentation went well, but afterwards when I am talking with the Project Manager, he asked me, “Why did you finish so soon? Everybody was loving it! They had so many questions! We could have gone for another hour, or another two.” So it turns out that I had sent the wrong message. I had said that my time was more important than spending time with the group, answering their questions.

It’s important when we are working in a multinational context to be flexible and to be observant. To ask somebody, what does the local culture expect and to look for hints. I would have been better served to have paused the presentation and ask the Project Manager, “Do we need to finish up now? Does the team need to get back to work? Or should we keep going?” Remember that particularly in Asia, the focus won’t be on time, it’s going to be on developing a relationship… the focus is going be on you.

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