1. Time matters
2. The dimension of polychronic and monochronic time
2.1 polychronic time
2.2 monochronic time
2.3 typical misunderstandings
3. Indian time
3.1 karma and eternity
3.3 conflicts with M-time
3.4 summary - understanding Indian time
4. German time
4.1 scheduling and compartmentalization
4.2 summary - understanding German time
5. Systems of thought
5.1 holistic vs. analytic cognition
5.2 linking systems of thought to concepts of time Publication bibliography
1. Time matters
Time1 is inseparably intertwined with our lives. We seldom stop to think about it because it appears to be a natural constant, which has always been and always will be. Most people are oblivious to the fact, that our perception of time and our ways to handle it are not uniform but culturally shaped. To say it with the words of the US-American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who is one of the leading theoreticians in the field:
"Time is a core system of cultural, social, and personal life. In fact, nothing occurs except in some kind of time frame. A complicating factor in intercultural relations is that each culture has its own time frames in which the patterns are unique. This means that to function effectively abroad it is just as necessary to learn the language of time as it is to learn the spoken language." (Hall 1983, p. 3).
Consequently, different time frames might explain many misunderstandings in intercultural collaboration. Due to globalization, companies invest all around the world and it becomes more and more relevant for them to understand, why the attempt to implement their management approaches in culturally different contexts often fail. It is not enough to look at the surface only – time matters as well. Accordingly, Sahay emphasizes that taking time and space into account will lead to a more holistic understanding of implementation problems by going beyond the search for the elusive dependent variable that determines success or failure (Sahay 1998, p. 149). It is my ambition to strive for a deeper understanding as well.
The underlying questions of this paper are: what kind of time related misunderstandings can occur in intercultural collaboration of Indians and Germans? And correspondingly, what do business people need to know about the time perception of the other to work together successfully? In order to answer these questions, I will use Hall's theoretical dimensions of polychronic and monochronic time. Investigating the applicability of this framework to India and Germany, I will try to locate both on a range from polychronic to monochronic time and analyze if typical misunderstandings occur. When referring to Indians and Germans, I focus exclusively on educated business people from urban centers. Finally, I will try to put these considerations into a greater context by discussing the question, if time concepts can be related to culturally different systems of thought. In doing so, I will refer to the theory of holistic vs. analytic cognition by Nisbett et al.
2. The dimension of polychronic and monochronic time
Time has long been a subject of scientific interest and there is a broad variety of approaches to it. In their attempt to clarify the current estate of research on time, Ancona et al. declare a lack of coherence in the field (Ancona et al. 2001, p. 512). However, one theory has been picked up and developed further by many researchers: the dimensions of polychronic and monochronic time by Hall. What makes his theory so popular? Apparently, Hall's cultural time dimension is like an overarching concept including other approaches to time. Ancona et al. review current research on time from various disciplines and distinguish three approaches to analyze differences in time perception: conceptions of time, mapping activities to time and actors relating to time. Hall's dimensions of polychronic and monochronic time are considered category-spanning variables, because they include all three approaches (Ancona et al. 2001, p. 520). Therefore, they seem to be a good choice in an attempt to look at time in a holistic way. Also, Hall focuses explicitly on a business context. In this chapter, I will first give a short introduction to Hall's theory, then I will further describe the two dimensions in a general way. Afterwards I will outline typical misunderstandings in a working environment where representatives of both times are confronted with each other.
According to Hall:
"There are many kinds of time systems in the world, but two are most important to international business. We call them monochronic and polychronic time. Monochronic time means paying attention to and doing only one thing at a time. Polychronic time means being involved with many things at once. Like oil and water, the two systems do not mix." (Hall, Reed Hall 1990, p. 13).
At first glance, two distinct categories like these may seem like a great simplification. Nevertheless, it is important to point out, that not all monochronic or polychronic persons are the same: after Hall there are tight and lose versions of both orientations (Hall 1983, p. 55). A similar point is made by Salacuse, emphasizing that differences in time concepts should not be regarded as either one way or another - instead we should imagine a continuum ranging from low to high time sensitivity2 (Salacuse 2004, p. 6). Keeping this in mind is very important in order to avoid the creation of stereotypes. I will therefore try to place India and Germany on that continuum instead of defining them as either entirely polychronic or monochronic.
2.1 polychronic time
As pointed out before, being polychronic means being involved with many things simultaneously. Hall characterizes P-time (polychronic time) as not tangible, and therefore seldom experienced as ‘wasted’. Time seems to be handled with more flexibility, given that plans are changed often and easily (Hall, Reed Hall 1990, pp. 14–15). This contradicts the habit of scheduling, for example in the context of business meetings: "The purpose of the meeting [in P-time] is to create consensus. A rigid agenda and consensus present opposite goals and do not mix. The importance of this basic dichotomy cannot be overemphasized." (Hall, Reed Hall 1990, p. 17). Time is often perceived as cyclical, rather than linear: regarding parts of Asia, Helman describes a "cyclical view of human experience [that] may include concepts of reincarnation such as samsara - the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth found in both Buddhism and Hinduism." (Helman 2005, p. 54)3.
One key feature of P-time seems to be the priority of relationships: the involvement of people and completion of transactions are more important than following a schedule. Consequently, people tend to build long term relationships (Hall 1983, p. 46). As Hall emphasizes, in P-time cultures family always comes first before any business obligation. But not only the very act of giving preference to family members matters – the importance of the activity or person who is pushed aside in order to make room shows the degree of commitment to one’s family and is therefore itself an act of communication (Hall 1983, pp. 54–55). Both features, flexibility toward time and priority of relationships seem to be linked to each other. For example, Miller notices when events start late "most people simply wait out the delays and take advantage of the opportunity to socialize." (Miller 2006, p. 239). Furthermore, being late for an appointment is much more acceptable than disrupting an ongoing conversation (Hall, Reed Hall 1990, pp. 14–15). This habit shows preference of relationships over schedule most clearly.
2.2 monochronic time
Unlike polychronics, monochronics usually do only one thing at a time. Hall describes M-time (monochronic time) as being distinguished by the following key features: it is experienced and used in a linear way, like a road leading from past to future, it is ‘compartmentalized’, which means divided into segments, and it is tangible and therefore something that can be saved, spent, and wasted. In M-time, the schedule is always made priority. Consequently, getting work done is more important than socializing and people are accustomed to short term relationships (Hall, Reed Hall 1990, pp. 13–15). Explaining further how M-time shapes relationships, Hall draws attention to the fact that the very act of scheduling comes along with setting priorities. In order to schedule, one has to decide which task to accomplish or which person to speak to first, since it is only possible to handle one event at a time. Important tasks and persons come first, unimportant things are attended to later (Hall 1983, p. 48). When M-time people do not have time for someone, "[t]ime becomes a room which some people are allowed to enter, while others are excluded" (Hall, Reed Hall 1990, p. 14).
After Ancona et al. the most common way to describe time in western societies is clock time: a linear continuum that can be divided into measurable, objective units. Clock time can be considered one end on a spectrum of conceptions of time and is included in Hall’s M-time. Because time concepts are culturally constructed, social structures may evolve around them: for example the construction of clock time (time as measurable resource) enables the division of labor, which has been fundamental for the development of western industrialization (Ancona et al. 2001, pp. 514–515). According to Hall, M-time might feel natural to people socialized into M-time patterns but actually does not come along with biological rhythms. It can even inhibit creativity by forcing people to stop when things just begin to go well (Hall 1983, p. 49). Of course, the clock as a device for precise time measurement has been invented by humans and the division into 24 hours is artificial and therefore culturally constructed.
2.3 typical misunderstandings
Misunderstandings can typically occur in two interrelated areas: first, when it comes to the schedule and punctuality habit in M-time, and second when relationships are given higher priority in P-time.
Scheduling, and therefore M-time, is deeply intertwined with the Western way to do business. Following Goplan and Stahl, two key assumptions on time are building blocks for (US-American) strategic management practices: first time is an asset with perishable value; second time is linear and therefore can be wasted when used inefficiently. Resulting from these assumptions, weekly, monthly and long-term goals are developed. Objectives must be accomplished during the specified time period. From this perspective, time becomes a zero-sum game: time not used to gain maximum productivity is considered wasted (Goplan, Stahl 2006, p. 290). Sahay argues in a similar way, pointing out that "criteria of time and money are grounded in the belief of efficiency which dominates rationalistic Western thought." (Sahay 1998, p. 165). This attitude can be summarized as time is money and results in extensive scheduling.
Due to globalization and the economic influence of Western enterprises, M-time oriented management approaches seem to spread. However, they often do not fit into P-time contexts, for example described by Miller referring to Nairobi:
"Because of increased globalization and the influence of Western media, some accommodation to the monochronic system has been made by urban Kenyan in recent years […]. Overall, though, operating in monochronic time still appears to be an uncomfortable fit. The professionals who arrive at work in the morning with appointments for the day penciled in their diaries more often than not by afternoon have ordered their secretaries to make a string of calls postponing their meetings." (Miller 2006, p. 239).
As Hall points out, the planning habit of M-time oriented persons sometimes just does not make sense, since it is not always predictable how much time a meeting with a particular client will take (Hall 1983, p. 46). This is even truer for contexts with unreliable infrastructure such as Nairobi4 and in fact most cities except for the M-time core areas of the highly industrialized West. Unfortunately, most monochronics seem to be oblivious to the fact that in other contexts punctuality is just not doable to the extent they might expect. Relating to North Americans, Hall explains:
"Particularly distressing to Americans is the way in which appointments are handled by polychronic people. Being on time simply doesn't mean the same thing as it does in the United States. Matters in a polychronic culture seem in a constant state of flux.” (Hall 1983, p. 47).
Punctuality is not only important as a foundation for scheduling but can hold further culturally defined meaning. According to Hall, in M-time cultures it is usually perceived as impolite to keep someone waiting. It can be used as a way to show power, because the more powerful get away with it. On the other hand it can be perceived by the visitor as a sign for the other person being disorganized. In P-time cultures, no message of that kind is intended and it is very important not to interpret waiting time in a similar way (Hall, Reed Hall 1990, p. 21).
Further problems related to scheduling can arise when it comes to the organization of work between superiors and subordinates. According to Hall, in polychronic business environments it is common for the manager to look at each subordinates job and define the activities he has to perform in order to accomplish the job. Activities are frequently checked by the administrator in order to verify if each function has been performed. Even so, the decision on when the activities are actually performed is left to the subordinate. In contrast, monochronic business environments work in the opposite way. M-time superiors schedule activities for their subordinates but leave it to them to define the activities (Hall 1983, pp. 50–51). Obviously, it is a problem when a monochronic manager tries to implement his system on polychronic employees, or to say it in a more radical way: "For an employer to schedule a [P-time oriented] subordinate's work for him would be considered a tyrannical violation of his individuality - an invasion of the self." (Hall 1983, p. 50).
Apart from scheduling, typical conflicts arise when it comes to relationships: "Polychronic cultures are by their very nature oriented to people. [...] If you value people, you must hear them out and cannot cut them off simply because of a schedule." (Hall 1983, p. 53). Hall also looks at it from the M-time point of view: of course the P-time tendency to give family priority over business can result in great irritation among monochronics. The monochronic business partner who is set aside at the last minute will feel that he simply does not count. On the other hand, he might feel pressured when friends or family members expect him to act according to the P-time scheme and prioritize them over his business schedule (Hall 1983, p. 55). Apparently, monochronics and polychronic have different objectives in business: whereas monochronics want to finish their work within a fixed time frame, polychronics primarily aim at good relationships.
1 Time is not defined in a scientific, physical way but as: "a nonspatial continuum in which events occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future." Ancona et al. 2001, p. 513
2 High time sensitivity would be monochronic in this framework.
3 I will explore this further in chapter 3.1 karma and eternity
4 Saying this, I can draw on personal experience from a journey to Nairobi in 2011. The infrastructure of the city is clearly overburdened by traffic and it is impossible to tell how long it would take to get to a specific place.