Module 2: Intercultural communication, local culture and customs

Lesson Title

Cultural parameter “time and timeliness”



This lesson aims to provide and insight into different understandings of time – both regards working time and punctuality. The culture theory of Hofstede provides some explanations on the differences between cultures, or persons.


Lesson time foreseen

1 hour


Lesson Content

You may have already experienced the different perceptions of time and timeliness yourself – dates for dinner are a good example: in Mediterranean European countries, Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa, it is normal, or at least widely tolerated, to arrive half an hour late for a dinner invitation, whereas in Germany and Switzerland this would be extremely rude. []
However, when trying to understand the underlying drivers (or culture), it’s worth having a look at the culture theory of Hofstede again [link to topic 2.0 Introduction]. According to his study, people’s perception and use of time is mainly influenced by their orientation:
Persons with a short-term orientation (so-called “monochronic culture”) are found to be time-fixed, doing one thing at a time, "one after the other” and involved with doing the job, while time commitments are taken seriously and plans are followed with a lower risk tolerance. Time is a commodity. You will hear expressions like "waste time" or "lose time" or "time is money". For people with this mindset showing up late, especially for a meeting or a dinner, usually comes across as very disrespectful.
On the opposite, people with long-term orientation (“polychronic culture”) do many things at the same time, they are "multitasking": involved with family, friends, customers. People from these cultures often believe that time cannot be controlled and it is flexible. That’s why commitments in time mean little and plans can be changed in such an error-tolerant system. For polychronic persons, many tasks like building relationships, negotiating or problem solving, can be accomplished at the same time
Of course, you will find these behaviours again in the way people organise their working day (or not).

However, when its comes to the general working time as such, some other factors play in as well:

The common working time is often influenced by climatic conditions (longer lunch breaks in Mediterranean countries due to heat), by religions (Sunday as a work-free day in Christian religions, Saturday in Jewish religion etc.) and by social standards in labour regulations about maximum working time, and their enforcement.
Example Germany: Sunday is a work-free day (exemptions are only allowed for specific businesses and locations, e.g. supermarket in a train station), average working time per week is 40hours (or 35hours in public services). Wages are paid by the end of the month worked, opening hours can be decided by the owner, but are limited by the Sunday – free day regulation.
Work versus leisure time

There are cultural differences in the value placed on work, on leisure, and upon the balance between the two. The United States and Japan are famous for long work hours, as exemplified by the terms “workaholic” and “karoshi” (“death by overwork”). European nations tend to also emphasize work, with many differences among countries, but generally put greater emphasis on preserving nonwork time than do people in the United States and Japan.
Exercise: “Are there activities where you might benefit from another culture’s approach to time rather than your usual approach? Give an example.”



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