Cultural Bodyclock: How to Adjust to Polychronic or Monochronic Time Perception

Research by Harvard Business Review found that

“between 10% and 20% of all U.S. managers sent abroad returned early because of job dissatisfaction or difficulties in adjusting to a foreign country.”

One of the primary adjustments to make as a manager in a foreign country is adjusting one’s bodyclock to the culture’s time perception.

As we’ve learned these past few weeks, polychronic and monochronic cultures operate according to clocks that have been set very differently – not just in two different time zones, but more like in two different space-time continuums.

Polychronic cultures have a more fluid view of time, while in monochronic cultures, time is linear.

If you’re sent to manage a company in another country, you might need to acquire – or at least adjust to – their view of time.

But you can’t just reset your watch, so how do you make these adjustments actionable?

Being a Monochron

For those coming from a polychronic culture into a monochronic culture, you might proactively focus on these aspects of time perception:

  • Punctuality and organization – both the manager and the staff know their schedule in advance and are expected to be prompt at meetings. Punctuality is key to keeping everything else on track, like a well-oiled machine.
  • Time management tools – many countries in monochronic cultures use time management tools to keep joint calendars as a team and stay on task. Tools like Scoro, Asana, and Trello come to mind.
  • Linear activities – monochronic time systems move one step at a time. Once one task is completed and accounted for, an employee can move onto the next, ensuring focus and efficiency.
  • Individual drive and achievement – individual successes are celebrated, both personally and by the company (think “employee of the month”). This motivates personal drive and performance.
  • Meeting deadlines – deadlines in monochronic cultures are hard stops. Work is expected to be completed promptly by deadline in a task-oriented fashion.

If you, as a polychron, can tune into these time- and motivation-related aims, you will be a more successful manager in a monochronic culture.

Being a Polychron

For those coming from a monochronic culture into a polychronic culture, you might proactively focus on these aspects of time perception.

  • Interactionrelationships and personal connections are a normal part of the workday. While tasks are set, personal interaction with colleagues and clients is expected and often prioritized.
  • Integrated activities – multitasking is common, and tasks are completed in an integrated and often leisurely fashion, with those who have finished their tasks pulling in to help others.
  • Group effort – as mentioned above, tasks are more often a group effort, as polychronic businesses often have a flat management structure where peer support is encouraged. Thus, individual recognition isn’t so important as group recognition.
  • Flexibility – there is a more flexible agenda in polychronic cultures, with employees not worrying too much about a hard deadline.
  • High context communication – all crucial information is shared, along with background information, and often in a manner where tone and visual cues are emphasized and interpreted.

When stepping into another culture’s time perception, making pointed actionable adjustments will help you adjust your bodyclock in a concrete way to a foreign culture.

“Hawaiian Time” vs. “Haole Time”: When Monochronic and Polychronic Time Perspectives Collide

You’ve just moved to Hawaii, and your new associate wants to schedule a meetup tomorrow to go over the basics.

They tell you, “Let’s meet at 3 o’clock, ‘Hawaiian time’.”

You show up at three o’clock, on the dot. 

By 3:05, you’re looking at your watch.

By 3:15, you’re tapping your foot.

By 3:35, you’re considering throwing in the towel.

Your associate finally arrives at 3:43, looking unhurried and surprised by your clear exasperation.

When you mention the scheduled meetup time, they laugh and say, “I did say, ‘Hawaiian time’?”

Little did you know, “Hawaiian time” means “island time” – in other words, the schedule is lax, and a meeting will start whenever the attendees happen to roll on up.

Had your new associate said, “Let’s meet at three o’clock, ‘Haole time’,” you could have expected them to show up at 3 o’clock, as stipulated.

The term, “haole,” is slang for non-native Hawaiians or Caucasian Westerners, who culturally have a much stricter value of time.

This type of cultural collision is bound to occur when the time orientations and/or perspectives of associated cultures don’t align, which can happen even across different cultures in a single assimilated country, as this example illustrates.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent some time (no pun intended) discussing time orientation: past, present, future, and timeline.

These orientations fall into different time perspectives – monochronic and polychronic – and, as with time orientations, the corresponding cultural values and norms vary.

Let’s take a brief look at how.

Monochronic Cultural Proclivities

Monochronic cultures often have a linear or timeline/future orientation.

You might find people of monochronic cultures to be more inclined toward the following:

  • Completing one task at a time
  • Focusing on the task at hand
  • Following strict deadlines or schedules
  • Requiring information and being low-context
  • Being work-oriented and committed to tasks at hand
  • Being committed to plans
  • Viewing ownership and privacy as important
  • Promoting timeliness, despite circumstances or relationships
  • Tending toward practical relationships that are often short-lived

As you can see, monochronic cultures value strict timelines more than anything, as doing so makes the trains run on time.

Conclusion: if you’re working with or in a monochronic culture, you’ll succeed in a timely manner.

Polychronic Cultural Proclivities

Polychronic cultures often have a past orientation.

You might find people of polychronic cultures to be more inclined toward the following::

  • Multitasking
  • Focusing on events occurring around them
  • Aiming for results, goals, and objectives
  • Possessing information and being high-context
  • Being relationship-oriented
  • Being flexible with plans
  • Viewing networking and community as important
  • Promoting relationships and circumstances over timeliness
  • Tending toward lifelong relationships and family ties

As you can see, relationships matter more than time in polychronic cultures.

Conclusion: if you’re working with or in a polychronic culture, you’ll succeed by preserving the relationship.

Seeing as these values and norms vary so greatly, working cross-culturally with polychronic or monochronic cultures can require some understanding and finessing.

We’ll talk more in-depth about each time perspective in the upcoming weeks.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Timeline-Oriented Cultures View Time

Do you have the time to talk about time?

You should, because understanding cultural concepts of time matters a great deal to cross-cultural relations.

Time-orientation researchers Alexander Gonzalez and Phillip Zimbardo wrote:

“Every child learns a time perspective that is appropriate to the values and needs of his society.”

Time is directly linked to a society’s values and needs. It is of the utmost importance to cultural understanding.

As we’ve discussed these past few weeks, the way a society views time can explain a lot about their cultural baobab.

For instance, those who are past-oriented value tradition; those who are present-oriented value instant gratification; and those who are future-oriented value goals and long-term benefits.

One last type of time orientation is timeline cognitivity.

Let’s take a look at how timeline-oriented cultures view and value time.

Timeline-Oriented Values

“Time is a wave or a black hole could not bend it; humanity rides the crest of an infinite number of waves that are perceived as linear in their limited frame of reference.” ― Ken Poirot

Timelines are linear, as are timeline-oriented cultures.

They view everything in linear terms with a linear frame of reference.

Individuals in such societies tend to be very detail-oriented but struggle to absorb and understand multiple events simultaneously.

Timeline-oriented cultures also tend to be monochronic, completing one task at a time.

Individuals from such cultures are generally not prone to multitasking.

Monochronic, timeline-oriented cultures value schedules and demonstrate strict time management.

The Devil is in the Details

Differing views on time influence global communications and affairs, necessitating some cross-cultural understanding and diplomacy on the matter.

When it comes to managing or negotiating across cultures, some knowledge of and practice in dealing with these differences in time perspectives and communication styles is key to succeeding in business.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Future-Oriented Cultures View Time

Say, you’re headed to a job interview in the U.S.

You’ve probably prepared for this common question: “Where do you see yourself in 5/10 years?”

This is a perfect example of how Americans – and other future-oriented cultures – view time.

Their focus is on future goals.

What can they accomplish in the present to meet these goals?

How can they benefit in the future from their actions today?

We’ve talked about past-oriented cultures and present-oriented cultures.

If you find yourself most often viewing life in terms of what is to come, you might be from a future-oriented culture.

Future-Oriented Values

“The future depends on what we do in the present.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Future-oriented cultures view life and priorities in terms of long-term goals.

Their values are based on goal-setting and achieving.

In a large-scale study of culture and leadership, the GLOBE project defined future-oriented cultures as those that value “the sacrifice of short-term pleasures and satisfactions in favor of long-term success and prosperity.” 

As you can imagine, such goal-oriented cultures are often competitive and confident, as they have an idea of what they want.

Think, “the American Dream.” 

Sacrificing today means a more promising tomorrow.

Such cultures are grounded in optimism, seeking a better future for themselves and working toward that “dream.”

They value planning and investing.

The study also found that future-oriented cultures – like the U.S., Singapore, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Malaysia – often have a higher GDP per capita, as their forward-thinking values help them see the big-picture.

The Future is Ours

“Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.” – Nikola Tesla

To differentiate between past, present, and future orientation, consider a pipeline potentially being constructed over sacred land.

A past-oriented culture might view the grounds as sacrosanct.

From their perspective, the land should be respected, and the people’s historical use and ownership of these grounds, honored.

A present-oriented culture might primarily value the jobs that this pipeline will provide today – jobs in a region that desperately needs them.

A future-oriented culture might look at the long-term effects of this pipeline. 

What would the benefits of its construction be? The drawbacks and the costs? To what extent would the pipeline impact the environment and the bottom line?

The point is, a culture’s time perception dictates its values.

Cultural time orientation will influence thinking, rationale, and the choices one will make in business and personal matters.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Present-Oriented Cultures View Time

Be present.

Exist in the now.

You only live once.

When it comes to time orientation, present-oriented cultures view the current moment in time as the only moment that matters.

Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo spoke of individual time orientation, saying:

“There are two ways to be present-oriented, the most obvious is to be hedonistic, that you live for pleasure and you avoid pain. You seek knowledge, you seek sensation. There are other people who are present-oriented because they say, ‘It doesn’t pay to plan. My life is fated – fated by my religion, my poverty, the conditions that I’m living under.’”

While personal present-oriented values may not be exactly the same as those who are culturally present-oriented, the belief in fate does play into the perspective of time in many cultures.

Unlike past-oriented cultures, present time orientation results in a short-term thinking style with little focus on the future or the past.

Let’s dive in to the present.

Present-Oriented Values

Present-oriented cultures view the past as a closed book.

It is done, it is finished, it is something that cannot be changed.

Similarly, they view the future as something that has yet to be written, and they don’t have the power or tools to write it.

The past is gone, and the future is uncertain.

The only timeline that truly matters – and to which they have any influence – is the present.

Thus, the focus is on today, for tomorrow may not arrive.

They look to ways in which they can influence the present moment or changes they can make to yield short-term, immediate results.

You might find present-oriented cultures in Latin America and Africa. 

France, too, is said to have a more present-oriented culture, compared to the UK (past) and the US (future).

The Present is a Gift

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.” – Henry David Thoreau

Because their lives are not grounded in the future or the past, present-oriented cultures view the present as a gift.

They live life for today, not tomorrow.

Next week, we’ll talk about how this differs from future-oriented cultures.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Past-Oriented Cultures View Time

How do you make life decisions?

Do you anchor your reasoning in the past, basing logic on tradition and precedence?

Or do you look toward the future, anchoring decisions on what could be?

In the same vein, think about your culture.

Does your culture go back millennia or a mere few centuries?

Or maybe it was born yesterday?

The answers to these questions can tell us about our culture’s concept of time orientation.

We’ve talked a bit about time orientation and perception in a past blog.

But let’s dig a little deeper into each of the 4 Types of Cultural Time Orientation and Time Perception.

Past-Oriented Values

“The past is the beginning of the beginning and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.” – H.G. Wells

In past-oriented cultures, the past is honored and revered and heavily nostalgic, and it plays a large part in how present society is run and how decisions are made.

Past-oriented societies include China, Japan, Britain, and many Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.

They often follow formalities when it comes to working relationships and tend toward conservatism, meaning they are not often progressive in business matters.

Work culture is thoroughly grounded in ways of management that are tied to the past.

They also hold traditional values because feeding a collective memory is key to their cultural identity.

Due to the importance of tradition in these countries, their societies are slow to change. 

If you try to intervene in tradition, you are not to be trusted.

As individuals, too, ancestral worship and family traditions are highly valued.

The Past Guides Us

Past-oriented societies don’t just make decisions based on past experience; they see their hope and inspiration in what has already been.

History, tradition, and precedence inspire them and direct their future.

They invest in businesses and other organizations that already exist.

All resources and efforts are put toward what has been established, and the past is used to evaluate the present.

Past-oriented cultures also tend to be risk-averse, and hiring is done with loyalty of company in mind.

Staff is expected to adhere to policies and procedures, as well as established norms.

Moreover, when planning for important changes that might also require a change in mentality, long time frames accommodate for resistance to said changes.

Change for change’s sake is not appreciated, and the past is led into the future, remaining very much alive in the present.

Visionary leaders of such cultures are able to balance their concept of time enough to ensure change is not too jarring and that the past is not left behind. 

How Time Orientation & Chronemics Impact Queuing & Workplace Culture

Chronemics, which we described in a past post as the study of time’s role in communication, directly correlates with time orientation, discussed last week.

Knowing that some polychronic cultures view time as cyclical and sometimes don’t even have future tenses in their language, you may have guessed that polychronic cultures are often past-oriented.

Monochronic cultures, on the other hand, are largely future-oriented.

Here are a few ways in which chronemics direct cultural behaviors.

Queuing Culture

queue

Have you ever queued up in a foreign country and been cut in front of?

If you have and immediately thought to yourself, “how rude!” then you’re probably from a monochronic culture. Monochronic cultures are often cultures of law and order.

As this article by Leon Mann, “Queue Culture: The Waiting Line as a Social System,” published in American Journal of Sociology writes:

“Cultural values of egalitarianism and orderliness are related to respect for the principle of service according to order of arrival which is embodied in the idea of a queue. The importance of time in Western culture is reflected in rules relating to ‘serving time’ to earn one’s position in line, and to the regulation of ‘time-outs.’”

Remember, monochronic cultures – like the U.S. – are also cultures where “time is money.” So, essentially, if someone cuts the line, individuals in such cultures might consider this behavior as theft of time and/or money. The offender is essentially saying their time is more valuable than that of those they’ve cut.

Polychronic cultures do not queue orderly, if at all. They crowd and scrap their way to the front of the line. In fact, cutting in line is almost a sport in such cultures.

Although even some of those who are of polychronic cultures might get upset when cut, the queueing culture (or lack thereof) is, more or less, accepted.

Actions & Their Consequences

Another way in which chronemics and time orientation impact cultural behavior is the consequences of certain actions at work.

The chart below highlights some examples:

workplace.jpg

Monochronic cultures are deadline-driven and task-oriented regarding both negotiations or projects. And, more often than not, the hierarchy within the organization is enforced.

For polychronic cultures, a deadline is just a suggestion, and negotiations don’t end until an agreement is made. Even then, the contract is amendable.

Moreover, organizations are interaction-oriented, rather than task-oriented, and the hierarchy within the organization is not as rigidly enforced if one even exists.

We’ll look at these ideas in action next week.

4 Types of Cultural Time Orientation & Time Perception

The ways in which individuals in a culture work and how they view time frames are dictated by whether a culture runs according to a polychronic time system or a monochronic time system.

We talked last week about cultures with informal concepts of time, including cultures that view time as exclusively present (not past or future) and those who view time as cyclical.

How is this time-orientation learned? Let’s take a look.

Values & Norms

Just as values and norms are a culture’s learned behaviors, so is time perception.

Time perception is based on a society’s values. As we mentioned in an earlier post, those from monochronic cultures value relationships above all else. So, if they miss a deadline in lieu of putting time into a family matter, it’s a nonissue.

So, just as children learn values – such as the importance of family – during their primary socialization, so they are oriented toward a specific time cognitivism based on those values.

Time Orientation

There are four different types of time orientation.

These are:

  • Past – the past and the present are interchangeable in past-oriented cultures. They often do not fully grasp elapsed time.
  • Time-line – this type of time cognitivity is a detail-oriented linear concept of time. However, time-line cognitivity does not lend itself to multitasking.
  • Present – you might think of a thrill-seeker when you think of present-oriented cognitivity. These are low-risk aversion cultures.
  • Future – the goal-setting, forward-thinking cultures are future-oriented. Those with future-oriented cognitivity look at the bigger picture and follow their plans through to achieve that picture.

What is affected by time orientation?

Communication, particularly the content of what’s being communicated, as well as the urgency and frequency of communication.

Who Belongs Where

Older countries with centuries of history, such as India and China, are generally past-oriented. The broad scope of time in these cultures enables a view of time that judges minutes and hours as inconsequential.

Forget the stampede and the rush to meet goals. The clock doesn’t rule such cultures – or, in fact, industry or infrastructure in such cultures. A train in India will be late, and few will bother. Late trains and missed deadlines are to be expected.

Cultures who live for today, like France, are considered present-oriented. Their values are more often thrill-seeking and pleasure-based, rather than with a view on the future or the past.

Newer countries with an eye on innovation and the future, like the US, are future-oriented. The “American Dream,” for instance, is a quintessential thread in the country’s cultural fabric.

A dream is an ideal to work toward; hence, it’s always in the future. Milestones are often set to achieve this ideal. And the clock is ticking. This leads to a culture working against the clock.

Time orientation combined with a culture’s values dictate much about the way individuals in said societies live their lives.

We’ll talk about how monochronism and polychronism falls into time orientation next week.