How Culture Controls Communication-2
Cultures are either sequential or synchronic
Some cultures think of time sequentially – as a linear commodity to “spend,” “save,” or “waste.” Other cultures view time synchronically – as a constant flow to be experienced in the moment, and as a force that cannot be contained or controlled.
In sequential cultures (like North American, English, German, Swedish, and Dutch), businesspeople give full attention to one agenda item after another. In many other parts of the world, professionals regularly do several things at the same time. I once cashed a traveler’s check at a Panamanian bank where the teller was counting my money, talking to a customer on the phone, and admiring the baby in the arms of the woman behind me. To her, it was all business as usual.
The American commoditization of time not only serves as the basis for a “time is money” mentality, it can lead to a fixation on timelines that plays right into the hands of savvy negotiators from other cultures. A Chinese executive explained: “All we need to do is find out when you are scheduled to leave the country and we wait until right before your flight to present our offer. By then, you are so anxious to stay on schedule, you’ll give away the whole deal.”
In synchronic cultures (including South America, southern Europe and Asia) the flow of time is viewed as a sort of circle – with the past, present, and future all inter-related. This viewpoint influences how organizations in those cultures approach deadlines, strategic thinking, investments, developing talent from within, and the concept of “long-term” planning.
Whether time is perceived as a commodity or a constant determines the meaning and value of being “on time.” Think of the misunderstandings that can occur when one culture views arriving late for a meeting as bad planning or a sign of disrespect, while another culture views an insistence on timeliness as childish impatience.
Orientation to the past, present, and future is another aspect of time in which cultures disagree. Americans believe that the individual can influence the future by personal effort, but since there are too many variables in the distant future, we favor a short-term view. This gives us an international reputation of “going for the quick buck” and being interested only in the next quarterly return. Even our relationships seem to be based on a “what have you done for me lately?” pragmatism.
Synchronic cultures have an entirely different perspective. The past becomes a context in which to understand the present and prepare for the future. Any important relationship is a durable bond that goes back and forward in time, and it is often viewed as grossly disloyal not to favor friends and relatives in business dealings.