From wandering tribes to travelling traders and religious missionaries, people have encountered others different from themselves. Although intercultural contact has a long history, today’s intercultural encounters are far more numerous and of greater importance than in any previous time in human history. But in spite of the new technologies and the accelerated intercultural contact, some aspects of the diverse human societies have remained unchanged and can lead to misunderstandings and building walls in our increasingly global world.
These are different ways of time perception traditionally accepted in different cultures and deeply rooted into the national characters. This article will present a quick overview of the peculiarities of the monochronic and polychronic cultures and present some tips on successful project management in the mixed international teams. Modern technological advances have made the world a much smaller place, promoting increased interactions between people of different nations and cultures.
The most critical aspect of the burgeoning transnational intercourse is communication – the ability to understand and to be understood is central to successful cross-cultural activities. All human interaction, either monocultural or cross-cultural, takes place within a social setting or context that affects the communication event. Whether you are in a classroom, dance hall, or business meeting, the context or social environment influences how you communicate. One of the constituents of social context is time.
Complex societies organize it in at least two different ways: events scheduled as separate items, one thing at a time – as in North Europe (also the USA and Canada), or following the Mediterranean model of involvement in several things at once (also Latin America, the Arab part of the Middle East, sub-Sahara Africa). The two systems are logically and empirically quite distinct; each has its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Monochronic time means doing one thing at a time.
It assumes careful planning and scheduling and is a familiar Western approach that appears in disciplines such as “time management”. Monochronic people tend also to be low context. In polychronic cultures, human interaction is valued over time and material things, leading to a lesser concern for “getting things done” – they do get done, but more in their own time. Aboriginal and Native Americans have typical polychronic cultures, where “talking stick” meetings can go on for as long as somebody has something to say. Polychronic people tend also to be high context.
Monochronic time cultures emphasize schedules, a precise reckoning of time, and promptness. Time is viewed as a discrete commodity. People with this cultural orientation tend to do one thing after another, finishing each activity before starting the next. On the other hand, in polychronic cultures, people tend to handle multiple things concurrently (or intermittently during a time period) and to emphasize the number of completed transactions and the number of people involved, rather than the adherence to time schedule.
Being on time is less important in polychronic cultures than in monochronic cultures. Monochronic people (M-people) tend to view activities and time in discreet segments or compartments, which are to be dealt with one at a time. It is not logical to have two activities going on at the same time. M-people can become frustrated with polychronic people (P-people) who view time as something fluid, and who easily alter schedules to shifting priorities. In polychronic time cultures, meetings may start late, run overtime, and allow outside issues to interrupt.
In addition, multiple activities may be scheduled at the same time, and adherence to deadlines may depend on the strength of the relationship. Polychronic individuals are oriented toward people, human relationships, and the family, which is the core of their existence. Family takes precedence over everything else. Though monochronic time cultures tend to make a fetish out of management, there are points at which monochronic time does not make as much sense as it might. Life in general is at times unpredictable; and who can tell exactly how long a particular client, patient, or set of transactions will take.
What can be accomplished one day in ten minutes may take twenty minutes on the next. Some days people will be rushed and cannot finish; on others, there is time to spare, so they waste the remaining time. For polychronic people, time is seldom experienced as “wasted”, and is opt to be considered a point rather then a ribbon or a road, but the point is often sacred. An Arab will say, “I will see you before one hour,” or “I will see you after two days. ” These commitments are taken quite seriously as long as one remains in the polychronic time pattern (1).
In the workplace, P-people prefer to keep their time unstructured, changing from one activity to another as the mood takes them. Although P-people can meet deadlines, they need to do so in their own way. A polychron does not want detailed plans imposed upon him, nor does he want to make his own detailed plans. P-people prefer to work as they see fit without a strict schedule, following their internal mental processes from one minute to the next. M-people relate to time differently: to them, time is discrete, not continuous.
M-people see time as being divided into fixed elements – seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and so on – temporal blocks that can be organized, quantified and scheduled. M-people love to plan in detail, making lists, keeping track of their activities, and organizing their time into a daily routine. M-people prefer to do one thing at a time, working on a task until it is finished, then, and only then, moving on to the next task. To a monochron, switching back and forth from one activity to another is not only wasteful and distracting, it is uncomfortable.
P-people are different. They love to work on more than one thing at a time. To a polychron, switching from one activity to another is both stimulating and productive and, hence, the most desirable way to work. Not all monochronic times and polychronic times are the same. There are tight and loose versions of each. The Japanese, for example, in the official business side of their lives where people do not meet on a highly personalized basis, provide us an excellent example of tight monochronic time.
Because of the way P-people see time, they are often late. This only makes sense because, to a polychron, exact times (and even exact dates) are not really meaningful and, hence, are not all that important. Try telling this to the monochron who is kept waiting for that polychron. While the polychron was finishing a couple of last- minute chores at home, the monochron was at the appointed place five minutes early, anxiously looking at his watch. To a monochron, time is exact and, as he sees it, being late is both rude and disrespectful. To a polychron, any time – even an exact time – is just an approximation. If someone keeps him waiting, he doesn’t really care.
He just figures that something must have happened to hold up the other person, and it’s not that big of a deal. In order to keep the peace, P-people do learn to be on time when they really need to be. However, if you can get them to talk truthfully, they will tell you that they don’t really understand why so many people feel that punctuality is a virtue. Tips for conducting business with polychronic cultures: Developing a relationship is important to people who are from polychronic cultures. The relationship is a key facilitator often driving the team towards deadlines and meeting the schedule. If your project is going to be managed as a virtual team, consider a few face-to-face visits to establish rapport and develop a relationship.
When you arrange the first meeting, plan to spend extra time getting to know your polychronic time counterparts, also review the process of the team meeting, how you will work together allowing a shared consensus on the best way to manage the projects. When conducting virtual team meeting plan for the meetings to start late and end late and expect dialog to occur. Use application suites that allow participants to respond and not feel isolated. Try to emulate real meetings as much as you can. Methods for this may include time in the beginning of the meeting to talk online about topical things such as social events, weather, vacations etc. Share pictures of each other so that people feel that the team is live and feel like members are together.
Technology Tips: Consider having synchronous tools (real-time communication exchanges) made available to the team such as instant messaging so that dialog can occur in real time and within groups. Make sure that if you choose a communication tool to provide training so it is adopted. Consider having a videoconference on occasion it will help each participant to see each other and get to know faces and develop rapport. Create a schedule and make sure that all participants own up to a part of the schedule and the time it is due. Show the importance and the value of each member’s participation in the success of the team. Many modern design applications allow milestone owners to have their name attached to tasks so that it is visible who may be causing a project “snag”.
Try to stick to the agenda as much as you can and allow meeting to run their course. Many times people will offer very valuable information pertinent to the project success that you may have over looked from their vantage point. Try to resist the urge to keep to a rigid schedule, but persuade people to go off track to come back to the meeting schedule. Tips for conducting business with Monochronic cultures: M-people tend to take agendas, schedules and deadlines dates quite seriously and will drive towards these dates. Alert M-people to potential schedule hitches that may be caused from locations they may not be aware of. Prepare in advance and follow up afterwards.
M-people in their tight view of time may not allow “space” for others to discuss point of conflicts and they may try to pass over them quickly to save the schedule. Agendas, tasks and schedules are excellent ways to communicate with M-people who tend to look for the sequence of tasks and activities and the progression of the project. Respect time – many cultures operate on very limited time schedules having meetings back to back and in very virtual environments. Realize that time is viewed as valuable commodity and the respect of time reflects your respect to the team. Create opportunities for chat and debate and schedule them into the meeting structure. This way you are alerting the M-people that debate and chat are structured activities and a valuable use of the team’s time.
Build rapport and trust among the team by scheduling in the beginning perhaps more meetings so that comfort is created that team members are present, interested and moving forward . Technology Tips: Post agendas in advance. Either post them in a virtual meeting room, on your project team tool or circulate in advance by email. This way you are showing the organization and task sequence for M-people. ? M-people may tend to have rigidly packed schedules and agendas trying to maximize the team’s online time together. Use the features of technology to express your thoughts if you feel you can not get a word in. Features such as “chat” or message to the meeting holder are ways to alert the M-person that you have other ideas to express that were not on the agenda. ? M-people love organized projects.
Consider using a Web project management or task tool to show the project progress, allow members to upload and respond to tasks and highlight task owners. Many of these tools offer colour-coding (red, yellow, green), which are universally accepted indicators for project status. Provide methods for communication. In their drive to complete tasks, M-people will want to know how to reach team members. Post members’ phone numbers, emails and instant messaging contact details so that all members feel that they have access. The important lesson here is that, when it comes to organizing time, we all think that how we do it makes the most sense. The hidden assumption is that there is only one right way to understand time (our way).
The truth is there is more than one way to think about time and neither extreme is right or wrong; they are just different. Knowing if your colleagues are polychrons or monochrons will be helpful to understand a lot about the best ways of communicating with them, including how you fit into their world and how they get along with others. When working across cultures, attention should be paid to high and low context cultures through the actions of others. For example if people are late for meetings it may be because they are polychronic, not because they are disrespectful or lazy. When the personal, national or organizational culture is understood, then it will be possible to align with the team and even gain greater influence.
Besides that, now all cultures with high technologies seem to incorporate both polychronic as well as monochronic functions. The point is that each does it in its own way.