Time and culture

This week I was in Lisbon facilitating a one-day discussion on organization culture at the Instituto Superior de Ciencias Sociais e Politicos .

The group of fifteen participants were variously PhD students, corporate employees – for the most part in HR Departments, and independent consultants so it made for a diversity of views that was delightful, and we had a lot of fun weaving our way through the nuances of culture. And just at a practical level there were differences in how we approached things.

Time is one of the cultural dimensions that we had some discussion of. The other two facilitators (we each facilitated different days of the week) had the same attitude and expectations to time that I have. We all thought that programs like this begin at the time stated (9:30 a.m.) and finish at the time stated, and the breaks are an agreed length that the participants will stick to. So the facilitators had some discussions about why this was very hard to put into practice – except for the finish time! Every day the program began later than intended – participants appearing up to 30 minutes late – and it seemed pointless beginning with only a handful of the registered people, and each break was almost twice as long as the agreed break. So what to do?

Well, in the case of my session, it provided a platform for a discussion on the value of time in different cultures, both organizational cultures and national cultures. The Portuguese participants warned me that were I to go to Brazil I would find the Brazilian attitude to time was even more relaxed than theirs. But here's a bit of a paradox because for the most part the flights, trains, and buses, run to the published schedule, and shops open (the bigger ones anyway) at the advertised opening time, so what is it about meetings both formal and informal that makes time attitudes different?

The discussion on time continued in my head after the event. I wondered if individual attitudes to time and the value people attach to it are part of a cultural identity that impacts the way organizations run and which are not really malleable. Can you change attitudes to time? What sprang to mind here was an incident I witnessed in a shop the other day (in the US) when one of the assistants walked in about 20 minutes after the shop had opened, the other two assistants exchanged looks and I asked if the assistant who'd just come in was late. We all heard a loud exchange in the office behind the counter. The late comer was from a non-US culture.

Pursuing this line of thought, I found a thought provoking article called Your Pace or Mine: Culture Time and Negotiation written by Ian McDuff who heads the Centre for Dispute Resolution, Singapore Management University the article (downloadable from the site)

"explores the impact that different perceptions of time may have on cross-cultural negotiations. Beyond obvious issues of punctuality and timekeeping, differences may occur in the value placed on the uses of time and the priorities given to past, present, or future orientations. The role of time in negotiations involves two key dimensions: differing perceptions and values of time, and the management of time. Both dimensions, the author suggests, need to be on the negotiation table."

McDuff leads into the article with a quote that bears thinking about when it comes to culture change:

"All practice creates time and the varying combinations of time within a social formation create a temporal structure or style. However, I believe that we should not merely say that social formations have their own temporal styles, but to go a step further and characterize social formations primarily in terms of their temporal styles of life" (Gosden 1994:187,McDuff emphasis added).

As I read through the article (and I recommend it for anyone interested on another slant on culture) I came across the word 'chronemics' which I had never heard before (neither has my Microsoft spell checker which is underlining it in red).

So off I went to find out a bit more, and lo and behold I discover an entire well-established theory and practice of chronemics that confirms once again that little boxes and silo mentalities are evident in all kinds of different ways. How have I not come across chronemics before I wonder?

Anyway, "chronemics is an important aspect of nonverbal communication in an intercultural setting. It studies the way people handle and structure their use of time when communicating. The way we perceive and structure our time, and react to it is a powerful communication tool, which helps set the stage for the communication process. Across cultures, time perception plays a significant role in the nonverbal communication process. Time perceptions include punctuality, willingness to wait, and interactions. The use of time can affect lifestyles, daily agendas, speed of speech, movements, and how long people are willing to listen."

Exploring a bit more I find that chronemics is often linked with proxemics. This latter is concerned with the use of space and spatial orientation in interactions which again people have different attitudes and values towards. This could have some interesting linkage to the way offices are designed. How much, I wonder do architects and designers study proxemics? It may be material as we design for people to form communities, collaborate effectively, and relate to each other. I got a quick lecture on the topic from Dr Caleb Carr of the University of Oklahoma. (No time to look for more info!)

Thus, my one day session led me into a whole new avenue of thinking and learning about both time and culture and proximity in the design of office space – all material in my day to day work. On a side note, the course organizer – a Portuguese psychologist – who sat in on the program was also amused by my asking participants to discuss topics and do various collaborative exercises at points but I only gave them a certain amount of time to do this – I was keen to get through the day's agenda. I stopped them in mid-table group discussions by ringing a bell (that was given to me once by a US client who wanted to make sure that the group got through the day's work and didn't spend too much time 'chatting'). The psychologist watched and heard the group's reaction to this – they couldn't understand why I didn't let them continue talking on the topic but pushed them on. He felt that it was good for them to experience different approaches to things – a learning opportunity, and also said that if I was able to come back next year he would allocate two days for me to cover the same amount of content..

What is your experience of time and spatial distance in different cultures and do you think they should be considered as integral to any culture change intervention?