Time Management Across Cultures

Jan 26, 2023 | 0 comments

We had been in our new host country for just a few months, started language school, and were learning a few things. We could say “hi” and count to 30 (ish). 

It was time to put some of this learning into practice. 

Some folks from a local church invited us to a wedding. It was the perfect opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture and test our new language skills. The wedding was scheduled for a Tuesday at 12:00pm.

It was on our calendar. 

On the day of the ceremony, we did our due diligence, dressed appropriately, and headed to the wedding venue, leaving early enough to account for traffic and arrive on time — and we did! We had five minutes to spare and walked up the stairs. We expected to see a colorful and festive room full of celebrants.

That’s not even close to what we found. 

Instead of the hubbub of a wedding party, two people dressed in work clothes greeted us, while happily decorating an empty room. There was no bride or groom in sight. Just two decorators and a handful of awkward, dressed-up foreigners.  

There was a wedding that day. People trickled in about an hour later. A two-hour ceremony began sometime mid-afternoon. The eating, drinking, dancing, and celebration went far into the night.  

We learned a lot at this wedding. But the big lesson was this: 

Things work differently when we leave our home culture, not the least of which is time

Not All Time is Created Equal

We’ve all heard the warnings in our cross-cultural studies class about the differences we would experience regarding time around the world. Some cultures have a “strict” view of time, while others have a more “casual” approach. The Swiss value punctuality. Kenyans are all about the event.

Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map is a wonderful resource for understanding these differences. She categorizes cultures as either linear or flexible with time. Linear cultures stick to schedules and deadlines and value punctuality, while flexible cultures are more adaptable and open to making changes on the fly.

While understanding these cultural differences is crucial, there’s also a practical problem to consider: 

How do we manage our time effectively when working with people from different parts of this spectrum?

Cultural awareness and adjustments can be especially challenging when leading a cross-cultural team. The simple act of scheduling a meeting is tough when team members from Germany and Switzerland arrive 10 minutes early, while those from the US get there on time, and others from Spain and Italy are 15 minutes late. Invitees from Nigeria and India might eventually show up an hour after the start time. 

This can frustrate everyone involved.

While there is no formula for navigating this, you can employ three essential leadership skills to help find your way through this conundrum. 

1.  Communicate With Compassion and Clarity

Don’t “send a memo” or give top-down orders. Have an open dialogue with your team about cultural differences. 

I was particularly frustrated about tardiness with my team at our ministry center in Central Asia, which prompted a conversation with a key national leader. He helped me to understand how his world worked, and I kindly informed him of how time and expectations work in my world. It was a beautiful moment of cultures colliding with grace and understanding. Behavior that seemed strange to both of us made sense now. He could then help me navigate the tardiness issue with the rest of the staff. From him, I learned that food is a bigger part of the culture than meetings. We began having monthly team meetings over a meal one evening per month. The result was accomplishing our work goals while developing deep relationships over dinner. It was beautiful, really. 

Start with listening and end with conversation because our work is about relationships.

That’s the heart of what we do. 

2.  Practice the Art of Adaptability

Learning to adapt is part and parcel of living cross culturally, isn’t it? The person who struggles to flex and adapt will have a more difficult time with change than those who don’t. When we arrived on time to a wedding that didn’t start until several hours later, we could have been annoyed and frustrated. Or we could (as we did) adapt. Embrace the moment. Relax and laugh and go to the party. Adapt your expectations at play and at work.  

In my workplace, I had to learn that representation from various points on the linear/flexible time spectrum didn’t have to result in obstacles and frustration. Learning the art of adaptability helped me to see new opportunities for growth and relationships. 

In the cross-cultural workplace, the leader should initiate adjustments to plans, strategies, and communication styles. Don’t try make an entire society adapt to the way you want things to run. In most instances, you are the one who makes the change. 

Lead with adaptation. Tear down barriers and become a cultural bridge.

The art of adaptability helps you do just that. 

3.  Establish Your Own Rhythms

It’s important that you establish your own rhythms, wherever you may personally land on the time spectrum. I’m an American. We are more linear than much of the world. (But not quite to the level of Japan, Switzerland, and Germany!) I personally needed to be more structured than my host culture in Central Asia — but clearly not to their exclusion! 

Time-blocking is the strategy I used to organize my day, while giving the greatest amount of flexibility. This worked well for my context, and I continue to coach other leaders with a similar system.  

Using a calendar (physical or digital — use what best suits you!), break up your day into large chunks of time. For me, 90/180-minute increments worked well. You can make them larger or smaller, depending on the context of your work. If you’re in Japan, I’d make them smaller (high linear time culture). If you’re in India, you should probably go big (high flexible time culture). Then assign jobs to every chunk of time. Because my host culture was not an early morning society, I assigned interruption-free work to the morning blocks. Local meetings landed in a 3 to 4-hour block of time in the afternoon, where I could be flexible whenever folks showed up. I assigned admin and maintenance to midday blocks. Team meetings were in the evening, over food. 

Time blocking is a great strategy for any sort of work environment in any culture, whether you work in an office or are the parent in charge of homeschooling. Give it a try!

The key to time management across cultures is to follow your rhythms with grace and low expectations.  

Learn to keep your schedule while adjusting to the natural rhythms of your host culture. 

Cross-cultural leaders: build your leadership skills! 

Communicate: Listen, learn, and teach with compassion and clarity because, as I said above, it’s all about relationships in the end. 

Adapt: You’ll have to adjust your expectations, anyway. You might as well be intentional about it. 

Time-Block: You can have the best of all worlds! Be creative and establish rhythms that serve both you and your host culture. 

Remember: How a society views time is not a moral or discipleship issue. 

It’s a cultural one. 

Photo by Diane Picchiottino on Unsplash

Bernie Anderson

Empowering next-generation leaders, business and non-profit consultant, writer, and speaker.




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