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The Multicultural Workplace: Crossing The “Time Line”

Business owners- workplace cultures

Time is a resource, but there are differences in the way we approach time that go back largely to the Eastern and Western cultural approaches.

Western cultures typically are what is referred to as monochronic. “Mono” refers to “one” or “limited amount,” and “chronic” refers to time. After teaching toward cultural sensitivity about this concept, I’ve had many people come up to me and describe themselves as naturally preferring organizations that are “monochromatic.” I often don’t have the heart to tell them that “chromatic” refers to color, so…yeah…there’s that.

Monochronic cultures view time as a linear concept.

For them, time is limited, valuable, and irreplaceable. Because of this, they tend to structure much of life around time and being on time. If you’ve ever said phrases like, “Time’s a-wasting,” “Time is money,” or “If you’re on time, you’re late,” then you might be monochronic. These cultures typically focus on one primary activity at a time. They value order, believing that there is an appropriate time and place for everything. They set great store by keeping to the schedule and do not appreciate interruptions to it or last-minute changes in plans. Time commitments are prized in these groups, and to be late is considered rude and unmindful of what someone else’s time is worth. These cultures tend to place high value on the individual, and thus, on private property and personal space.

On the other end of the spectrum are polychronic cultures.

They view time as being cyclical and so, in a sense, virtually unlimited. This leads to an entirely different way of approaching the world. Time comes around again and again, so there’s no need to be a slave to it. It is a “what goes around, comes around,” method of dealing with life. People from these groups are trained not to rush and tend not to develop the internal clock and ability to estimate how long things will take that people from monochronic cultures do. The polychronic person can characteristically accomplish multiple activities at the same time and have no problem dealing with distractions, interruptions, or changes to the schedule. Plans can easily be changed and will be if need be. Time is not a dearly valued commodity, but what is highly valued are relationships. Relational time is never infringed upon for the sake of a schedule, and hurrying is considered an unnecessary overreaction to something that is largely unimportant. Being polychronic doesn’t mean you’re just a person who is chronically late or unorganized. It is an orientation to time. It means that your life revolves around connections and relationships rather than schedule, time of day, and the concept of being on time.

This conflict has been my life. I am extremely monochronic, while my wife is classically polychronic. As I sit here this morning and write this, these concepts are once again on display. Our eighteen-year-old nephew lives with us and works at a manufacturing facility. He works third shift and needs to be picked up when he gets off work. On days when I am to pick him up, I leave our house at 5:48 am, as it is an eleven-minute drive. I know that and plan accordingly. Today, my wife is picking him up. At 5:49, I started to become concerned that I hadn’t yet seen her leave. At 5:53, I walked into our bedroom to ask if she wanted me to go get him. She said, “No, I’ll get him.” At 5:58, I left my office and returned to our room to see if she was sure she didn’t want me to get him. Her response was, “No, I just need to get up and go get him.” Here’s the thing: at this point, I’m internally melting down. And for no other reason than that she will be late to pick him up. It feels like a major moral indecency to me. Her attitude is something more like, “He’s not going anywhere. I’ll be there, and he’ll be fine.”

She’s right, of course. He is of the same time orientation as her, so it won’t bother him that much, if at all. Our sons, however, have managed to contract my view of the world and are different. They are decidedly monochronic. If this situation were happening to our younger son, the most monochronic of the two of them, we would have received a text at 6:01 wondering where we were and what was going on.

Just to update you on this, she finally left the house at 6:04, I’m sure with the thought that she will get there, pick him up, and then they can stop at the store if he needs anything and be on their way with the rest of the day. Do you want to guess the foremost thought on my mind? It is simply this: she will be arriving at 6:15. That’s fifteen minutes late. I would feel stressed the entire drive over there. I guarantee you that not only is my incredible wife not worrying that she is “late,” but there’s no way that she could tell you that it takes eleven minutes to get to his jobsite. She is focused on their relationship and his personal needs when she gets there, and the time factor isn’t her major concern.

This divergence in how we interact with time is bigger than you might realize. It’s not just about being on time or not. It dictates much of how we view the world and go about ordering our lives. It determines much of what feels like respectful or rude behavior. Putting monochronic and polychronic people together in the same sphere can be difficult and lead to much conflict.

Let me give a couple of examples to demonstrate.

The production team ran a little long today in completing their start-of-day tasks, which pushed back a few other things and it’s now 10:04. The meeting that was supposed to start at 10:00 am has yet to kick off. Half their coworkers are well aware of this and annoyed that this sloppiness has happened yet again. Who is in charge of this? It reflects badly on all of us. Meanwhile, the other half has no idea we’re late. They are lost in conversation, and it wouldn’t bother them one bit if we didn’t start for another twenty minutes. And it wouldn’t bother them if we then finished twenty minutes late. But you’d better call a fleet of ambulances, because several of the monochronic folks might go into a full-blown breakdown if we randomly run long like that with no warning.

Two former colleagues decide to grab some coffee after work and spend some time catching up. The monochronic one arrives precisely at 5 pm as they planned. The polychronic one decides that on the way he will drop off a meal that his wife made for a family that just had a baby. Once he gets there, the new dad has a few questions and needs advice on parenting, so they talk for a bit and then he gets on his way to meet his friend. He arrives in the parking lot at 5:18, only then noticing that he has received two texts from his friend wondering if he is still coming. As he walks into the coffee shop, he expects a warm greeting, but instead receives a halfhearted one. The first words out of the mouth of his friend are, “Do you understand how valuable my time is?” How is that relationship going to go from there?

Bridging the Gap

Is it possible to come to some sort of common cultural ground in the areas of resources and time? I will be honest; it’s not going to be easy. With over twenty years of marriage behind us, my wife and I are still learning to navigate these differences. It can be done, but it will not be quick, it will not be easy, and it most likely will take ongoing and constant attention and tweaking to keep harmony. These types of cross-cultural issues can rarely reach a point where they can go on cruise control and we can now assume that we have conquered them and no longer need to worry about them.

We might even want to make time orientation an issue of respect, and thus a moral one, but it’s really not. Polychronic people are not disrespectful. They just value different things. Monochronic people are not dismissive of relationships. They have been trained to value relationships, but within the parameters of schedules and time considerations. This truly is an issue about valuing and respecting contrasting things. In neither case is it as simple as that the other culture group is wrong and disrespectful.

Communication and Education

Knowing is usually half the battle. It definitely is in this area. Understanding the cultural differences we have in our view of time, and where those differences come from, can be invaluable. Recognizing divergent orientations of time will probably not help us avoid culture conflict and misunderstandings in this area, but it will assist in avoiding assumptions about the other person’s motives or lack of character.

When we dig into these issues, we will probably find that those who come from a polychronic background need to learn more about wisely handling their time and that those from monochronic background will often have the very knowledge they need. At the same time, while not always true, there is often much that the monochronic culture can learn from the polychronic culture about flexibility and helping others with the need of the moment.

We can learn from one another, but the path of wisdom should always be sought.

You may find that you are in a workplace that is dominated by one or the other of these approaches to time. Where there is a mix, though, we should seek compromise. I would advocate that corporate events run on time, but that in all other cases we tend toward heavy communication and understanding of what the other person meant in their culture. For instance, in the above example of the person who was late for coffee because he stopped to bring a meal to someone, according to his culture, he was not communicating disrespect or unconcern at all. If I can recognize that, I can interpret into my world what he intended in his world and be flexible.

The bottom line when it comes to time issues is that they will most likely have to be communicated about and dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

The Compromise Position

To bridge the gap between monochronic and polychronic peoples, it is all about compromise and communication. There is not a simple formula that works in every situation. At least there is not one that my wife and I have discovered yet. What we have found works is that we must clearly communicate and cannot assume anything when it comes to time and schedule. But that by itself will not do it. We have also found that we need a liberal dose of empathy.

Time orientation may not seem like the most fundamental or important of elements, but it would be a mistake to underestimate its impact on the workplace, since it reaches into almost every aspect of our lives, and the way we are brought up can affect our thought processes and even how our brain works. People who are truly polychronic, for example, will find it next to impossible to ever fully grasp certain aspects of time orientation, like estimating time or having an internal clock that keeps you on task.

Since there is no clear-cut approach that would lead us to prefer or submit to one outlook or the other, that means the only way forward is constant communication, negotiation, and planning. For monochronic and polychronic folks to work together, events and interactions must be thought through and discussed more than they would if everyone were the same. If my wife and I don’t talk carefully through events and come to a clear understanding, complete with contingencies if we run late, then we will have conflict.

Heart Language

Monochronic cultures typically care deeply about time order and structure, often in ways they never even realize. The level of stress one can feel about being late or changing schedules repeatedly cannot be fully understood by the polychronic person. Likewise, the amount of disrespect communicated by valuing time over relationship cannot be overstated for members of the polychronic group. It’s a heart language issue for both, which is why this can be such a source of irritation and conflict if not constantly attended to. The fact that it is equally central to both cultural views means that there is no clear directive in favoring one or the other, but it does highlight how vital it is to make sure that we are aware of the differing approaches and constantly seeking to communicate and educate on the issue.

Bonus experiment:

Here is an experiment that will be challenging but very productive if you are willing to try it. Plan a weekend with a person or couple that has the opposite time orientation from you. You will first have to put in a little work to find the right person or couple. If you are a group of more than three persons, you can have multiple experiments going on at once. For this experiment, one person will be in complete charge of the schedule for the weekend. They will plan everything you do, and you need to do your utmost to stick to it. The more you do, the more benefit you will receive from this experiment. They should plan when you wake, when you all eat, what activities to do when, even when to go to bed, and everything in between. If the person in control of the schedule is very monochronic, it might be a very structured weekend. If the scheduler is polychronic, it might be very unstructured. Whatever the situation, give yourself over to their scheduling.

At the end of the weekend, process the experience and ask yourself:

  1. What did I learn from this?
  2. What are the benefits from approaching life this way?
  3. Are there any ways that I now appreciate that orientation a little more?
  4. Is there anything from this approach that I can incorporate into my life and routine?

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About the author

COVID-19 Impact on Future and New Business Operation

Guest Writer: Michael Burns taught high school history in the central city of Milwaukee for nearly ten years. He is currently a national and international teacher and writer educating on cultural humility and responsiveness in groups and communities.

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