How different cultures handle time

This entry is a little hard for me to write because my personal experience differs completely with what the textbooks say about cultures.

Who is fast & who is slow?
When Americans go to France, they complain that the French are so slow. When Indians deal with the French, they complain that French are so rigid about deadlines. So, which is which? The answer is that sensitivity to time and deadlines is cultural, and it is relevant. Additionally, individuals in particular cultures handle time restraints very differently from others in that same culture which adds another layer of complexity.

Mapping different cultures
While perusing Harvard Business Review’s blog, I came across an article about mapping different cultures. Instead of having a geographical map showing where particular countries are, you have a cultural map showing where cultures are relative to other cultures in particular respects. This was very interesting to me.

Factors in culture mapping
The factors that were considered in management culture included sensitivity to deadlines, how specific you were in communication, how directly you voiced negative feedback, how hierachical society is, how people avoid confrontation, and other factors as well. This particular article is focusing more on how various cultures handle time sensitivity.

If I drew my own map for time sensitivity it would look like this:
Korea; Japan; Germany; Switzerland; Scandinavia; US; Canada; China; France; Italy; Russia; Arabia; Latin America; Southeast Asia; India; Pakistan; Subsaharan Africa.

Koreans just can’t wait.
Koreans in my experience are the most impatient people who exist. There have been studies on Koreans that show particular traits of impatience. It is common for Koreans to hover next to the microwave when making instant noodles counting every second in the count down as if they are watching the space shuttle awaiting for take off. I remember having massage from a Korean grandmother. After the massage was over, she always wanted to barge in with a few dixie cups of water before I had my clothes on. I asked if she could wait 20 seconds, but I was asking too much. In other cultures, they might keep me waiting seven minutes for my water until I got the water myself. And if they microwaved soup in a slower culture, and get into a conversation, and it might be cold by the time it reaches you.

The culture map that I referenced did not have any data on Arabs, or Thais as it only examined six interesting and diverse cultures in so many ways. I wish it had more like two dozen cultures to be more thorough.

My problem with Indians
After looking at all of the differences between cultures, I begin to realize what my problem with Indians is — they have a strict hierarchy. I don’t mind following authority providing they are doing what they are doing what they are supposed to. But, what if they are being hypocrites, causing dysfunction and chaos? I can’t keep my mouth shut under those situations, yet Indians require that I do — hence a huge clash. On a brighter note, I am very relationship oriented like Indians, and value holistic thinking like the Japanese. Overall, I am not really clashing with other cultures any more than I clash with my own.

My experience with faster cultures
America is not one of the faster countries on the list, but overall is faster than average. I find that when I assign work to Americans, there is never any rush to get the work done. It is like living in a very expensive third world country where abandoned construction projects leave a pile of bricks for four months by the side of the road — except that I am in e-business and have the cyber equivalent of what I just described. In my business experience, Americans are not fast to get work done. In fact, I have found that Indians in the IT industry are a little faster than the average Americans in IT. I have also found that Indians like to map projects out point by point and typically won’t get started unless every minute detail is spelled out. Although oral communication with Indians is generally bad, and workmanship is not as tidy as in the US, they tend to get more work done more quickly and with less drama.

Intra-cultural diversity: what does that mean?
Additionally, Arabs have a reputation of never being on time. Sure, they are shrewd in business and impatient, but try getting them to show up for your business meeting at 3pm — they’ll show up at 5 or 6pm if you’re lucky. But, I also know Arabs who are always on time and get tons of work done very quickly. Cultural maps don’t take into consider intra-cultural diversity: the diversity among members of the same culture. Many cultures have huge gaps in the attitudes and behaviors of their members. There is some truth to the idea of the politically correct that “you can’t generalize.” Although, I will say that with Japanese, I’m not sure if there are any slow ones. I think that the samurai killed off all the slow ones a few generations ago leaving a condition that I call: survival of the fastest!

You might also like:

A tool that maps cultural differences

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