The consciousness of time is a distinctive characteristic of human beings that separates us from all other living creatures. However, the way time is actually perceived and cherished varies significantly across cultures, and it is a consequence of a deeply rooted set of values and experiences in each society. Moreover, a low level of awareness of the reasons behind the different behaviors each culture manifest around time management often leads to easy stereotyping and translates into intense friction at the global workplace.
The shape of time.
Western societies are divided into those that view time as linear, a straight line of sequential events that should happen one after the other, or flexible,
where activities are subject to interruptions and changes as other opportunities arise. These two different approaches affect how people organize their days, how much they plan in advance, and even how flexible those plans can be.
The value of time.
Anthropologist Edward T. Hall divided cultures into monochronic, where people view time as a tangible and concrete asset to cherish, and polychronic, where relationships prevail over the clock.
In monochronic cultures events are planned to occur in sequential order, completing one task before beginning the next one. Interruptions are a rare exception, and preventing external events from altering a set schedule overrides interpersonal relationships. Efficiency is, and it is measured through the actual use of time. In a profit-oriented society like the American one, time is money, and it can be 'spent,' 'saved,' 'wasted,' 'lost' or 'made.' Time is such a precious asset that even 'spending quality time with family members' is a good euphemism for efficiently allocating such a precious asset to non-monetary matters.
In polychronic societies, many things are dealt with at once, and interruptions are accepted. In general, they are more committed to people and human relationships that to the job, and can change plans often and easily. They tend to view linear cultures as inflexible and rigid, while they are perceived as chaotic and disorganized.
The substance of time.
For linear people time is clock and calendar related, cannot be compressed or expanded at our own will but only segmented in an abstract manner for our convenience, measurement, and disposal. For flexible people, time is made up of a less rigid substance that can be molded and stretched irrespective of what the clock says. An American speaker at a conference saying that their 'time is up' when posed with a question which answer could extend over the preset schedule could get a scornful look by a Latin American audience who would only use that term if death were imminent.
Time management at business meetings.
A direct consequence of these two distinctive ways to view time is seen when it comes to organizing a meeting. Linear people would send a detailed agenda well ahead of time, carefully explaining in the form of a list precisely what time the meeting will start and what subjects will be discussed in what order. At the meeting, if a particular discussion can extend over the allotted time, or if the item is not included in the agenda, it will most likely be 'parked' until another time. On the other hand, flexible people will ignore the passing of time if it means that conversations will be left unfinished. Scheduling is only viewed as a means to an end, and priority is given to the significance of each meeting, even if that results into finishing well beyond schedule or into completely disregarding the planned topics in the agenda. A competent manager is the one that is flexible and professional enough to capitalize on priorities and changing needs as they arise.
Possessing a good insight into the different motives that affect time management is an excellent way to prevent business blunders when it comes to working in a foreign culture. It also allows us to understand better why people act in such a different way from what our culture made us believed is appropriate, helps us become more creative and resourceful, and even more knowledgeable of the drivers behind our own behaviors.