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.

Should I Translate My Business Card?

Exchanging business cards (or “name cards” as they are called in China) is an important ritual throughout the business world. The business card is part of your introduction and, in many cultures, it’s unforgivable if you don’t have a professional card. But in an increasingly Global business world, there are linguistic and cultural considerations too… So should you translate your card, and if so, how many times?

Hi, I am Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. I recently had a client ask me if they should translate their business card into another language, for the clients they are working with around the world. This really depends on what kind of a business you are in, for one thing. Let’s say, for example, you are a U.S. based importer bringing products into the U.S. from around the world. You probably wouldn’t need to translate your card in this case because for one thing, your suppliers are going to expect to doing business with you in English. But, on the other hand, translating your card into many different languages, for every country you do business with, would probably be impractical.

Now, another possibility is, let’s say you are a language translation company and it’s important that you demonstrate competence and ability in certain languages. In this case you probably would want to translate your card, or at least some part of your card, to indicate that you support all these different languages in your translation service.

Reputation also matters. Having a U.S. based business does bring a certain degree of credibility to you. So, translating in English card into other languages isn’t always necessary. Sometimes leaving it in English is actually the right choice. We actually have had our clients tell us that we should just leave our card in English, because it provides a certain amount of credibility.

But probably the most important deciding factor is going to be whether or not language is a barrier. For example, if you’re doing a lot of business in China, with people who predominantly speak Mandarin, you should definitely translate the back side of your card into Mandarin. On the other hand, if you’re working in India, this strategy is unnecessary. Almost every professional is going to speak English and they are probably going to give you an English card, anyhow. Different countries have different rules. In Africa, for instance, you’ll be fine with English cards. But, if you’re going into South America, most likely you should have a Spanish translation because Spanish is widely used in business throughout South America.

Whatever you decide, be practical. I recently met somebody who had not less than five different business cards stuffed into his wallet, and it took him about thirty seconds to find the right one to give me. And it was a very awkward moment. If you work predominantly with one country, then consider translating your card so that you have your native language on the front and a foreign language at the back and leave it at that. On the other hand, if you work with many different countries, then you might want to consider translating your tagline or perhaps your company slogan, and you can do that with a couple of different languages. That will indicate your support of different languages without having five different cards stuffed into your wallet.

Overseas Vendor Versus Partner

While doing business overseas, the very term “outsourcing” implies a certain detachment and distance, ripping it out of your own company and leaving it for another to do. This is usually justified by the argument that the partner/vendor can get the job done more effectively and quickly. That may be true, but will they do it on their own, just because they have signed a contract to do so? Or should you build a closer, more trusted relationship?

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk briefly about working with vendors versus working with partners, in your overseas adventure. Choosing the right kind of relationship is really critical. Sometimes a vendor relationship is a right way to go. Vendors are going to be easy to find. You can search the internet and quite likely come up with a number of vendors that’ll fulfill your need. They are going to be turnkey. They are going to be ready to business. Vendors are easy to engage, but, at the same time, they are not going to be looking out your best interests. They’re going to be making a profit, looking at their bottom line.

In an international setting you are throwing a lot more complexity into the mix. For example, legal agreements are going to have different meanings in different cultures. They’re also going to be much harder to enforce if you do need to enforce the agreement. And then, finally, you’ve got to deal with different country law and international law. So, the bottom line is many times when you engage a overseas vendor, if there is a problem, it’s just not practical to actually enforce a legal agreement.

When you engage with a partner, you are looking for somebody who is vested in your own well being. This is going to be a long term relationship and mutual success is what’s going to drive it. The advantage with a partner is that they are going to understand the local market better than you do. They are also going to understand local business culture and business law. So, they are going to guide you in your efforts overseas.  They will give you strategic advice that is better than your typical vendor relationship will deliver. They are more vested in mutual well being.

But, that said, finding a partner can be lot more difficult. Getting a partnership off the ground in the East or Middle East or South America is not going to be a simple numbers driven equation. Most cultures are going to want to build a strong relationship before they start talking about their partnership. It’s going to take time. It will take months in many cases and it requires a personal presence. Going to the other country, meeting with your prospective partners, socializing, developing the personal relationship, getting to know each other, and then opening up the door to a long term, very successful business relationship. Most business relationships around the world take time to build. The cultures of Brazil, Russia, India, China, most of Asia — these are relationship driven cultures. They are not going to just jump into business.

Most Common Global Communication Mistakes

Getting past communication problems is one of the first challenges that comes up in global relationship building. In the best case, our cultural mistakes can be amusing, but more often they can give offense and cost us money. Here are few common mistakes to avoid when making your first foray abroad.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. We coach our clients on five different business cultural preferences that apply around the globe, in different cultures and in different business settings, and each one of these are extremely important. But today, I want to talk about common communication mistakes that people make when going from one culture to another in a business environment.

The first one is assuming that business culture and business practices around the world are more or less the same as they are at home. So for example, westerners tend to be very direct. They get right to the point, they want to dive into business and start negotiating right away. But many Eastern cultures tend to be more conservative. They want to build a relationship first, they want to get to know you, before they decide whether or not they should be doing business with you. So, this is just one example of how an initial meeting, when these two cultures come together, can result in a clash.

Another mistake can be putting too much attention just on the words that have been exchanged. So, what I mean by that is, Westerners might take a discussion and turn it into a contract, and look to that contract as the embodiment of the relationship. What was agreed and signed is how business should be conducted. But this doesn’t really work too well throughout most of the world. The Middle East, Asia, South America — it’s the relationship that’s more important. The contract tends to be a guideline, an initiation of that relationship. But over time the expectation is that the relationship will rule over the contract. Mutual health, mutual well being, is more important. So, what was agreed should change and this can result in a conflict where Westerners tend to be perceived as rigid, whereas other cultures are looking at them wondering, “Well, why aren’t you concerned about how well off we are together, about our future together?”

And the third point I want to mention is: Not looking deeper than just the communication and the words that are being exchanged. Multinational business and cross-cultural leadership are very complicated, because it brings a lot of different business cultural preferences into play. For example, how do different cultures think about time — is the schedule going to rule all? Or it is more important to take your time and make the right decisions and think about the long term?

It’s different from one individual to another. So, when I’m talking about East versus West, these are generalizations and it’s important to realize that generalizations don’t apply to individuals. You’ll meet Easterners that are extremely westernized and you’ll meet Westerners that are extremely easternized. But the important thing to understand is that every company has it’s own culture and just trying to push two companies together usually results in problems.

Overcoming Communication Barriers

There are many reasons for communication failure. What is said may not be received exactly the way the sender intended. Different business cultures view directness, harmony, saving face, and confrontation in different ways. How do these differences affect communication, and how do you overcome the obstacles?

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International, and I want to talk briefly about overcoming communication barriers. It’s important to understand that throughout the business world English is usually a second, third or fourth language for people — even though it is a commonly used business dialect.

Fluency takes years and includes slang and idioms and local references. For example, in the U.S. you might hear, “If this doesn’t work we’re sunk” or “that’s a home run,” which is a baseball reference of course. In India someone might say, “you are gone,” to mean that their position isn’t very positive. And, I’ve had people stand up and storm out of a room saying “that’s it, I quit,” but it’s sarcasm and I know they just mean they need a break.

In an international setting it’s best to avoid sarcasm and slang, and even jokes. Instead slow the conversation down. Give your partner time to digest what has been said, so that they can understand it and ask questions if they need to.

Also, be very aware of body language. It’s very easy to misinterpret body language. The Indian head waggle, for instance, many Westerners will assume that it means “yes” because, more or less, it looks like a “yes,” but it isn’t. It definitely doesn’t mean “yes.” Instead, ask questions when you see something you don’t understand and look for multiple confirmations, so that you know that the message is properly understood.

Our number one tip for the Westerners — don’t assume that agreement means agreement. Many cultures are very much oriented on preserving harmony and preserving face, so they won’t be confrontational. They won’t directly say “no” and they won’t be terribly critical. And for Easterners, our tip is: When your Western partner seems to be overly confrontational and critical, don’t immediately assume they mean offense. They may not. Perhaps they’re being open, honest and direct.

What Is Monochronic?

Different cultures view time along a spectrum with monochronic or polychronic at either end. When planning to do business overseas it’s a good idea to understand which end of the spectrum your native culture falls closest to, and where your overseas partner’s time orientation lies. Zacharias Beckman guides you through what it’s like to be “monochronic” in this week’s video blog.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International and I want to talk about monochronic time orientation. Do you feel that being late is unprofessional? Or that, your entire day could be thrown out of wrack if you are delayed just a little bit?

Monochronic cultures tends to be focused on the schedule — on doing one thing after another, usually in sequence. Sometimes this is called sequential orientation. Western cultures are very monochronic. Particularly countries like the United States, or perhaps Switzerland or Germany. In the west its common to schedule a day full of meetings, back to back, maybe eight meetings in one day. Agendas end promptly and move into the next meeting, one right after the other.

This approach doesn’t work too well in the east and middle east where culture is polychronic. Polychronic cultures have other priorities and this western schedule driven approach can send the wrong message and often offend the people that you are meeting with.

This sequential approach, this focus on time, is very often a problem when working with eastern or middle eastern cultures, which tend to be polychronic. Polychronic cultures have very different priorities and they think about time differently. By focusing on the schedule, the wrong message can be sent, and misunderstandings can result.

What Is Polychronic?

From a young age, some of us hear that “time is money,” growing up to respect being on-time and efficient. Others learn that time is fluid, and should be invested generously (time is one thing that we never run out of, after all). Polychronic cultures like to do multiple things at the same time and resist being pushed into sequential, linear schedules. Cultures vary from one part of the world to another.

Hi, I am Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International and I want to talk about polychronic time orientation. Think about this story: You are in a phone store, you are buying a new phone and the sales rep is surrounded by 8 or 10 other individuals, all clamoring for attention, and the thing is, he’s giving them attention. He is working with all of them. Polychronic orientation is doing more than one thing at a time. It’s very efficient. Consider the phone store example — while one person’s phone is rebooting, and while another is waiting for a carrier connection, that sales rep can work with someone else. So multiple people are getting served at the same time.

It is also very practical, because much of the world does not have the reliable infrastructure of some modern western countries. Transportation is unpredictable. Power is unpredictable. So, people don’t say that they’re going to be somewhere at an exact time. They don’t necessarily count on being able to work the whole day, because the power might go out. They hedge their bets and, in the meantime, they plan on doing more than one thing at a time. So they’re not inconvenienced by unpredictable infrastructure.

Consider this: If you are in a meeting and suddenly you look at your watch and say, “Oh, I’m out of time. Time to go,” [something that] happens often in the west, well it’s very disrespectful throughout most of the East and Middle East particularly. Because you are basically saying you value your time and schedule more than the relationship that you’re trying to build. Instead, the polychronic individual will take time to build the relationship, even if that means going over budget on the time. Because they trust that the next person they plan to meet will understand that. They will understand the importance of the relationship, and they’ll feel that when their turn comes, you will put the same importance on developing a relationship with them.

The polychronic individual plans on doing multiple things at one time. So, they won’t be inconvenienced or put out by a change in  schedule. It’s important to remember that most of the world is polychronic in their orientation.