When most people think of the United States, they picture New York City with the hustle bustle of people, traffic and the bright lights of Union Square. Most Spaniards I met while studying in Spain were shocked to find that I had only been two New York twice in my life. Apparently, it is the ultimate honeymoon destination for Spaniards. I would have never guessed. I think that it seems so odd to me because New York City is completely opposite of the Spanish lifestyle. New York is fast paced and Spaniards are generally…well not. The few people that had been to New York even commented that they were constantly being passed on the sidewalk and shot angry glares for walking too slow. So why do Spanish, and many cultures for that matter, tend to clash with Americans fast paced life? Time orientation!
From a young age, we hear the phrase “time is money” being tossed around. As American’s, we see time as dollar bills. We complain about people “wasting our time” because to us, time is something that is precious and we don’t have enough of it. The United States is considered a monochronic culture. This monochronic time system means that we want things to be done one by one in a certain order. We like to schedule and manage our time because it is a precious commodity. Business professionals are glued to their Blackberry or iPhone to constantly schedule and reschedule their time. Other monochronic cultures include Germany, Israel and Switzerland (Swiss time piece anyone?). This can cause some problems with cultures that don’t see time in the same way.
Polychronic cultures like to do things at the same time. During negotiations, they will move freely between topics and this frustrates many U.S. businesses. Spain, Latin America and the Middle East are all polychronic cultures. Relationships are far more important than deadlines and schedules. Planning to meet at 10 really means 10:30 or 11. People are constantly late for business meetings because they care more about family time and building friendships than they do work. It’s not rude to people used to the polychronic culture because it is expected. Time isn’t something that can be scheduled and set in stone.
Keep in mind these different time system differences when traveling and doing business in different cultures. Meetings may not start on time, negotiations may days longer than expected and you might need to invest more time in relationship building than business deals. You may even find the polychronic cultures refreshing as opposed to the go go go of the monochronic cultures. I personally think that American’s can learn something from the polychronic lifestyle by realizing that time isn’t always money. Sometimes, you just need to stop and enjoy yourself and the people around you. I know I could do that more often. Which time system do you prefer?