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Time and Culture: Your Perspective Matters


24 hours in a day, 24 time zones, a million different interpretations of what this actually means. Timing is everything, particularly in business, and depending on where you are, the concept can have a very different ebb and flow. This difference in time, or rather, the perspective can greatly influence one’s perception of a culture both in business and day-to-day life.

In America, we follow linear time. A recent article suggests that, to Americans, time is a precious tool that allows us to make more money, to compartmentalize our social life and time spent with loved ones. Everything moves forwards and our schedules are set.  The phrase “time is money” rings true for American culture, because many people in the USA will feel disgruntled, upset, and taken advantage of when their time isn’t treated respectfully. A schedule is to be kept, a plan is to be followed-through, and responses should be quick and to the point.  Americans multi-task with one ultimate goal, and one end.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some Asian cultures view time cyclically.  Whereas Americans discard the past in favor of the ever looming future, you can find that some Asian cultures reflect on past events, and expect them to return in a similar situation.  In this way, they are able to size up a situation and prepare for it, versus making final decision too early. Not every issue needs an answer, and “Starting and ending” doesn’t look like a sequential process, as chances will rise again.  There is much more that is left unsaid than said.

In between these two time ideas are the cultures that enjoy Multi-Active time – one without a schedule or punctuality yet where decisions are being made. They aren’t being made in order, and not in a prompt manner, but there is less subtlety.  This is often found in South European cultures. With this perspective, many decisions can be made and situations settled without the need for a step-by-step process. However, a shortfall of this perspective is when pressing matters are at hand – the world economy does not wait for one culture’s interpretation of time.

Whether in or outside the work place, Kara Ronin gives some general rules on time, such as trying to be just be 5 or 10 minutes early, regardless of where you find yourself.  Earlier than that and you can make others feel rushed.  Any later, and you may be giving off quite the rude impression.

Base on the above time perspectives of Linear, Cyclical, and Multi-Active, where you do think you fit in best?