Cultural differences in attitudes to time

Time is money. Or is it?

This is certainly a Western view about time and reflects the view of cultures where what happens in the present is seen to be of direct consequence to the future and, ultimately, personal or business success. In other cultures, different views of time exist and understanding this can help anyone undergoing employee relocation to overcome some of the communication challenges faced when doing business internationally.


This is a lovely timepiece


It’s no coincidence that luxury watch adverts abound in Switzerland, a country where the public transport system runs like clockwork and punctuality is hugely important in business. The importance placed on the measurement of time provides insight into expectations in business, with negotiations being based on the provision and analysis of detailed information and clarity required on delivery dates and other process details.

Cultures that are guided by the past include many African and Arabic cultures where tradition is important and guides decision making and negotiating processes. Doing business in past-orientated cultures will require connecting with people with birth right or age status and there is much greater flexibility around times. It’s not unusual for meetings in these countries to be interrupted by phone calls, the arrival of other visitors or family requirements – responding to the moment is more important than being on time.

Many Asian and Middle Eastern cultures are more concerned with the present – the here and now - and that means investing time in building strong relationships before business can be done.

Back to the future

Punctuality in business is important in creating a good impression in the UK, Germany, USA, Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia where expectations are high when it comes to punctuality and keeping to deadlines. The assumption is that present actions influence future outcomes and business. Attitudes to time are also influenced by industrial processes which have evolved in USA and Northern Europe.

By contrast, in many African and Asian cultures, the future is deemed to be unknowable – buses and trains depart when they’re full, determined by the situation when most people arrive rather than a fixed timetable. Long-term planning is more important to some cultures than others and the here and now can be more important than promises made for events that (may or may not) take place in the future.

Employees relocating overseas can experience differences in attitudes to time that are manifested as delays in responding to given deadlines and loose attitudes to appointment and meeting times. Things may change at the last minute and meetings be postponed at short notice, changing in response to the perceived overriding importance of immediate events.

All will be revealed in time

Different cultures perceive time differently - the past, present and future have different levels of significance according to culture. These perceptions of time are determined by factors such as religion, history and social practices. Patience and adjustment of expectations may be needed when doing business in cultures where attitudes to time are different. These are, of course, generalisations as variation occurs within any culture due to regional differences, organisational cultures and individual beliefs.

So how should anybody working abroad respond to these differences? Doing research on a market-by-market basis will help you to build awareness about how attitudes to time influence culture and alleviate some of the potential communication problems. Having patience and understanding culture can go a long way to managing expectations about time and ease your journey to success.

If you are managing an employee relocation programme or are considering relocating an employee overseas for the first time and would like to talk to us about cultural awareness training, please use the button below or call us on:

+44 (0)121 214 6204