Walk or take a snooze ...

Walk or take a snooze ...

I recently came across a great article called “Understanding Cultural Differences” (by Edward and Mildred Hall, 1990). They talk about cultures as tending to fall into two groups (Monochronic and Polychronic) depending on their internal time system which guides nonverbal communication and actions. Monochronic cultures are typically “Western” cultures including Swiss, German, Scandinavian, and US-an. While Polychronic cultures tend to be more Mediterranean and Latin, as well as East Asian and Arab.

The article goes on to explain some differences between these two ruling time systems and how they influence so many cultural interactions. Here are some of the most striking (and in my experience, completely visible and true) differences between cultural time systems. 

Monochronic (US, German) people tend to …. vs. Polychronic (Latin, Mediterranean) people who tend to:

  • do one thing at at time …. vs. do many things at once
  • concentrate on the job …. vs. are easily distracted and subject to interruptions
  • take time commitments seriously …. vs. consider time commitments an objective to be achieved if possible
  • emphasize promptness …. vs. base promptness on the relationship
  • need information to operate well …. vs. already know the information through cultural understanding
  • committed to the job …. vs. are committed to people and human relationships
  • adhere religiously to plans …. vs. change plans often and easily
  • are concerned about not disturbing others …. vs. are more concerned with those who are closely related than with privacy
  • show great respect for private property (seldom borrow/lend) …vs. borrow and lend things often and easily
  • are accustomed to short-term relationships … vs. have strong tendency to build lifetime relationships
Chasing Bubbles, not a thought to the hour

Chasing Bubbles, not a thought to the hour

While of course these are broad cultural generalizations, I found this list very insightful. It is true that in Mexico the meeting will always go long if there are still things to be said (which there always are). And no business meeting begins without at least a few minutes of small talk about children and families and personal life. All meetings are interrupted multiple times with various cell phone calls (taken in the meeting), emails being sent/received, and various side-conversations among participants. I am sure it is no coincidence that most office floor-plans in Mexico are “open style” as the heightened noise level, lack of privacy and increased social interactions are more comfortable for Latino cultures. And no weekend plan, such as a beach trip, can ever be counted on until you are actually in the car leaving the city, because 9 out of 10 times the plan will change even up until a half-hour before scheduled leaving time. Which can be frustrating!

Though as a perpetually late US-an myself, I must admit that I secretly like the emphasis on relationships over promptness. Honestly, my late arrival is not a reflection of my respect (or lack there-of) for the person I am going to meet. I just was raised in a household where finishing something was more important than arriving on time for the next thing. I have a suspicion that the US being the melting-pot that it is has more cultural influences from the Polychronic Time side than people like to admit. It must by my great-great-great aunt’s French influence.

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