The Concept of Time in Intercultural Communication (Richard D. Lewis. When Cultures Collide: Managing successfully across cultures. - USA: Today's Librarian. - P. 52-64.)
Time is seen in a different light by eastern and western cultures and even within these grouping assumes quite dissimilar aspects from country to country. In the western hemisphere, the USA and Mexico employ time in such a diametrically opposing manner that it causes intense friction between the two peoples. In western Europe the Swiss attitude to time bears little relation to that of neighbouring Italy. Thais do not evaluate the passing of time in the same way that the Japanese do. In Britain the future stretch out in front of you. In Madagascar it flows into the back of your head from behind. Linear time
In the linear-active, industrialised western cultures time is seen as a road along which we proceed. Life is sometimes referred to as a ‘journey’ – one also talks about the ‘end of the road’. We imagine ourselves as having travelled along that part of the road which is behind us (the past) and we see the untrodden path of the future stretching out in front of us. Linear-oriented people do not regard the future as entirely unknowable, for they already nudged it along certain channels by meticulous planning.
For an American, time is truly money. In a profit-oriented society, time is a precious, even scarce, commodity. It flows fast, like a mountain river in spring, and if you want to benefit from its passing, you have to move fast with it. Americans are people of actions; they cannot bear to be idle. Past time is over, but the present you can seize, parcel and package and make it work for you in the immediate future. In America you have to make money, otherwise you are nobody. If you have 40 years of earning capacity and you want to make $4 million, that means $100,000 per annum. If you can achieve this in 250 working days that comes to $400 a day or $50 an hour. The concept of time costing money is one thing. Another idea is that of wasting time. This seems logical enough, until one begins to apply the idea to other cultures. Has the Portuguese fisherman, who failed to hook a fish for two hours, wasted his time? Have the German composer, the French poet, the Spanish painter, devoid of ideas last week, skipped opportunities which can be qualified in monetary terms?
The Americans are not the only ones who sanctify timekeeping, for it is a religion in Switzerland and Germany, too. These countries, along with Britain, the Anglo-Saxon world in general, the Netherlands, Austria and Scandinavia, have a linear vision of time and action. They suspect, like the Americans, that time passing without decisions being made or action being performed is streaking away unutilised in a linear present and future.
Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Scandinavian peoples are essentially linear-active, time-dominated and monochronic. They prefer to do one thing at a time, concentrate on it and do it within a scheduled timescale. In a society such as existed in the former Soviet Union one could postulate that those who achieved substantial remuneration by working little (or not at all) were the most successful of all. Multi-actives
Southern Europeans are multi-active, rather than linear-active. The more things they can do or handle at the same time, the happier and the more fulfilled they feel. They organise their time (and lives) in an entirely different way from Americans, Germans and Swiss. Multi-active peoples are not very interested in schedules or punctuality. They pretend to observe them, especially if a linear-active partner insists, but they consider reality to be more important than appointments. In their ordering of things, priority is given to the relative thrill or significance of each meeting. Italians, Arabs ignore the passing of time if it means that conversations would be left unfinished. For them, completing a human transaction is the best way they can invest their time. German and Swiss love clock-regulated time, for it appears to them as a remarkably efficient, impartial and very precise way of organising life – especially in business. For an Italian, on the other hand, time considerations will usually be subjected to human feelings. ‘Why are you so angry because I came at 9.30?’ he asks his German colleague. ‘Because it says 9am in my diary’, says the German. ‘Then why don’t you write 9.30 and then we’ll both be happy?’
The Swiss, even more time and regulation dominated, have made precision a national symbol. This applies to their watch industry, their optical instruments, their pharmaceutical products, their banking. Planes, buses and trains leave on the dot. Accordingly, everything can be exactly calculated and predicted. Cyclic time
Both the linear-active Northerner and multi-active Latin think that they manage time in the best way possible. In some Eastern cultures, however, the adaptation of humans to time is seen as a viable alternative. In these cultures time is viewed neither as linear nor event-personality related, but as cyclic. Each day the sun rises and sets, the seasons follow one another, the heavenly bodies revolve around us, people grow old and die, but their children reconstitute the process. We know this cycle has gone on for one hundred thousand years and more. Cyclical time is not a scarce commodity. There would seem to be an unlimited supply of it just around the next bend. As they say in the East, when God made time, he made plenty of it.
As many Asians are keenly aware of the cyclical nature of time, business decisions are arrived at in a different way from in the West. Westerners often expect an Asian to make a quick decision or treat a current deal on its present merits, irrespective of what has happened in the past. Asians can not do this. The past formulates the contextual background to the present decision, about which in any case, as Asians, they must think long term – their hands are tied in many ways. Americans see time passing without decisions being made or actions performed as ‘wasted’. Asians do not see time as racing away unutilized in a linear future, but coming round again in a circle, where the same opportunities, risks, dangers will re-present themselves when people are so many days, weeks or months wiser. How often do we (in the West) say ‘It I had known then what I know now, I would never have done what I did’?
The American goes home satisfied with all tasks completed. The German and the Swiss probably do the same; the French or Italian might leave some ‘mopping up’ for the following day. Most Asians, who, instead of tackling problems immediately in sequential fashion, circle round them for a few days (weeks etc.) before committing themselves.
In a Buddhist culture – Thailand is a good example, although Buddhist influence pervades large areas of Asia – not only time but life itself goes round in a circle. Whatever we plan in our diary, however we organise our particular world, generation follows generation, governments and rulers will succeed each other, crops will be harvested, monsoons, earthquakes and other catastrophes will recur, taxes will be paid, the sun and moon will rise and set, stocks and shares will rise and fall. Even the Americans will not change such events, certainly not by rushing things. Chinese
Chinese, like most Asians, ‘walk round the pool’ in order to make well-considered decision, but they also have a keen sense of the value of time. This can be noticed especially in their attitude towards taking up other people’s time, for which they frequently apologise. It is customary, at the end of a meeting in China, to thank the participants for contributing their valuable time. Punctuality on arrival is also considered important – more so than in Asian countries. Indeed, when meeting are scheduled between two people, it is not usual for a Chinese to arrive 15-30 minutes early ‘in order to finish the business before the time appointed for its discussion’, so not stealing any of the other person’s time! It is also considered polite in China to announce, 10 or 15 minutes after a meeting has begun, that one will soon have to be going. The Chinese will not go, of course, until the transaction has been completed, but the point has been made. This is indeed a double standard. The Chinese penchant for humility demands that the interlocutor’s time be seen as precious, but on the other hand Chinese expect a liberal amount of time to be allocated to repeated consideration of the details of a transaction and to the careful nurturing of personal relationships surrounding the deal. They frequently complain that Americans, in China to do business, often have to catch their plane back to the US ‘in the middle of the discussion’. The Americans sees the facts as having been adequately discussed; the Chinese feels that he has not yet attained that the degree of closeness – that satisfying sense of common trust and intent – that is for him the bedrock of the deal and other transactions in the future. Japanese
The Japanese have a keen sense of the unfolding of time. People familiar with Japan are aware of the contrast between the breakneck pace maintained by the Japanese factory worker on the one hand, and the unhurried contemplation to be observed in Japanese gardens or the agonisingly slow tempo of a Noh play on the other. The Japanese segment time. This segmentation does not follow the American or German pattern, where tasks are assigned in a logical sequence aiming at maximum efficiency and speed in implementation. The Japanese are more concerned, not with how long something takes to happen, but with how time is divided up in the interests of properness, courtesy, and tradition.
In Japan there would be quite marked beginnings and endings. At Japanese weddings, for example, guests are often required to proceed from room to room, as the ceremony and celebrations unfold, usually according to a strict schedule. The total time involved is not so important; it is the significance of passing from one phase of activity to another which puts a particular Japanese stamp on the event. This applies both to social and business situations. In Japan, form and symbols are more important than content.
Cultures observing both linear and cyclic concepts of time see the past as something we have put behind us and the future as something which lies before us. In Madagascar, the opposite is the case. The Malagasy imagine the future as flowing into the back of their head, or passing them from behind, then becoming the past as it stretches out in front of them. The past is in front of their eyes because it is visible, known and influential. The Malagasy people spend an inordinate amount of time consulting their ancestors, exhuming their bones, parting with them. By contrast the Malagasy consider the future unknowable. It is behind their head where they do not have eyes. Buses in Madagascar leave, not according to a predetermined timetable, but when the bus is full. The situation triggers the event. The Malagasy sees this as common sense: the ‘best’ time for the bus departure is when it fills.