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What makes cultures different: one thing at a time or OK to juggle?

The person was 10 minutes late for the meeting. After 15minutes, she took a phone call. Then, her colleague came twice to ask questions. Now, she had to go talk to somebody else. The meeting is supposed to finish in 15 minutes and you haven’t got to the heart of the matter.

What is your reaction? Do you find it exasperating or is it normal? Well, it all depends on your culture. It depends what time means for you.

There are two main ways of seeing time: monochronic or polychronic.

In monochronic cultures, you tend to divide your time into tasks that you get done in sequence. Time is about doing. In these cultures, it is expected meetings will begin on time, follow the agenda, people are focused on the task. People apologise if they are late. For such cultures, time is finite, it comes and goes and that’s it. People in monochronic cultures have a more rigid view of time. Examples are North America, Northern Europe and some Asian cultures.

In contrast, polychronic cultures, such as in South America, the Middle East and Southern Europe, time is more about what you are doing at any one point rather than on timeframes in which to do it. You do what is important at the time and time is about forging and nurturing relationships. It is not so much people are multi-tasking (we cannot efficiently); it is they switch more easily from one task to another, and do not see as distractions what could be seen as such in monochronic cultures.

So, what do you do?

  1. Whatever your cultural orientation, if you are to meet with people you do not know, aim to arrive on time. Take something with you to read or do if you have to wait. Or see about having chats with people. This will build the relationships so important in polychronic cultures.
  2. If you are more a polychronic person, try to focus a bit more on your interlocutor especially if this person is more monochronic in their orientations. You will build a relationship with this person this way.
  3. If you are more monochronic in your approach, do not take personally the behaviours of people who have a more polychronic approach. They are not ignoring you.
  4. If mismatch prevents progress, just stop and discuss what is happening.
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