The question seems simple enough—“Are we on time?” but that seemingly simple question can unlock different ways of viewing time and the commitments associated with our view of time. My experience with intercultural training has made me think about, and look at, that question a bit differently.
“On time” in Ghana
It reminds me of the story about a German businessman traveling in Ghana. He set a meeting with his Ghanaian counterpart for 1 p.m. Since “on time” for the German businessman meant arriving early enough for the meeting to begin at 1 p.m., he made sure he arrived at the Ghanaian’s office 10 minutes early to account for things that could go wrong. After his arrival, he was greeted by the secretary of his Ghanaian counterpart and told to take a seat. 1 p.m. came and went and his Ghanaian counterpart wasn’t there. 1:10 p.m. came and went, and his counterpart wasn’t there. 1:20 p.m. came and went and his counterpart still wasn’t there. At this point the German businessman asked the secretary if everything was OK. Had there been an accident preventing the arrival of his counterpart? The secretary simply smiled and said she was sure everything was OK and that the Ghanaian businessman should be along any minute now. The German businessman returned to his seat and continued to wait, becoming angrier as each moment passed. As the clock struck 1:45 p.m. the Ghanaian businessman entered his office in no particular hurry, chatted with his secretary and invited the then angry German businessman into his office. After closing the door, the German businessman could not contain himself any long and he said, “I don’t know what kind of outfit you’re running here but we clearly said we would meet at 1:00 p.m. According to my watch, it is now 1:55 p.m.!” The Ghanaian took a seat behind his desk and said “My good man, you have the watch but I have the time.”
Sequential v. Synchronic views of time
The story above is an illustration of two different ways of seeing time, sequentially and synchronically. According to Fons Trompenaars Seven Dimensions of Culture, cultures with a preference for a sequential approach to time tend to treat time as a commodity. Time is something to be saved, spent or wasted. Time is used to bring order and set limits, like the counselor who says your time is up even if you are in the middle of revealing a deep insight.
On the other hand, those cultures which tend to see time synchronically see time more holistically and interconnected. Time doesn’t drive the task. If I am meeting with my manager and the meeting goes longer than expected, I probably won’t stand up at the appointed hour and leave! If he decides it is a better use of my time to meet with him than to do the other things I planned to do, then I would shift and cancel other commitments. Synchronic cultures tend to value priorities more than a predetermined time limit. They will do what is right to do at the moment, not follow a strict schedule.
What can we do when different cultural perspectives of being “on time” clash? Typically one view can accommodate the other. I can bring a book or work with me to appointments in case someone is late or add time to the appointment in anticipation of the other being late. On the other hand, I could clear time before an important meeting, account for what could go wrong and leave in plenty of time to be there at the appointed hour. If I’m early, so be it.
Reconciliation is something different than simply tolerating and accommodating the tendencies of others. In reconciliation we can negotiate with each other to find a way that works for both of us. Being aware of our different tendencies and caring about our relationships leads to solutions beyond compromise. For example if I am more synchronic and you are more sequential, instead of you needing to bring a book with you to our meeting, I’ll commit to a longer time together and provide you with a meaningful activity before we meet. If we need less time, you will have saved time and if I am delayed you still can do something worthwhile and productive before we begin. No time is “wasted” and you will have my undivided attention during our meeting until our goals are met.
The focus on reconciliation is why Target Training integrates Trompenaars Hampden-Turner’s experience and research into our solutions. Through reconciliation, clients will find better solutions to the intercultural problems they face. Target Training is a licensed supplier of Trompenaars-Hampden-Turner’s Intercultural Awareness Profile and Cultural Competence Online Products. Target Training provides intercultural training based on the Trompenaars’ Seven Dimension Model alone and as part of business communication skills training.