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The Many Meanings of “On-time”


“Time is money.”

“Better late than never.”

“Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.”

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”

“Time is an illusion.”


Maybe you’ve used one or more of the phrases above to describe time somehow, and probably you have some quotes or saying of your own. Keep them in mind until the end of this post. Maybe the interpretation of those phrases will change for you.


How individuals perceive the nature of time and its use is part of any self-respecting cultural intelligence report. Actually, an important one! I can’t tell you how many times this has been an issue in a multicultural team. Here’s why.


Let’s do it this way, I’ll ask some questions, and you answer them to yourself, then I’ll tell you how the interpretation may change from culture to culture.


Question 1

When you are invited to a social gathering with friends, let’s say at 8:00 pm, ¿at what time do you think it is ok to arrive?


Question 2

¿Is it ok to finish 30 minutes late a meeting scheduled to end at 5:00 pm?


Question 3

¿How much time is ok to have a conversation with a colleague by the water cooler about non-work issues?


Question 4, and the last one, I promise

You can have half a plate of your favorite food now or a full plate tomorrow. Which do you choose?


I’m sure the answers to all four questions are obvious. And that’s the point. They are evident for your culture. Remember how culture is “what goes without saying”?


Let’s review each question. Remember, there’s no right or wrong. These aspects are part of different culture’s normality and daily life.


Questions 1 and 2

Both are really about the same aspect, Fluid vs. Fixed, or sometimes called Elastic vs. Non-elastic.


In fluid time cultures, people tend to be less focused on the precise accounting of every moment and task and much more focused on relationships. In fluid-time cultures, there’s a non-spoken allowed time for lateness. For example, if you invite people to come to a social gathering by 8:00 pm, in some cultures, that means anywhere between 8:30 and 9:30 pm. In some of the more fluid cultures, this reads as “sometime in the evening.” Of course, this means precisely 8:00 pm for fixed time cultures, and not only that but it may also be expected that you define an ending time.


In a business setting, time elasticity is not as wide; however, people may not even notice that a meeting is starting 15-20 minutes late in some fluid time cultures. Crazy! Right fellow fixed timer?


So, as you can see, the meaning of “on-time” will vary from culture to culture.


Question 3 is about Single-focus or Multi-focus, also known as Monochronic vs. Polychronic.

In Monochronic cultures, things are usually done one at a time. Time is segmented into precise, small units, and time is scheduled and managed. It is not uncommon to schedule 15 minutes meetings. Water cooler chats are usually less than 10 minutes, and since they tend to focus on one thing at a time, it is not ok to abruptly interrupt someone because they will stop what they are doing and give you their full attention.


In Polychronic cultures, people have a much less formal perception of time and are not governed by accurate calendars and schedules. Water cooler chats will last for as long as they have to. When you abruptly interrupt them in their offices or cubicles, they will keep what they are doing and still listen to you.


And question 4 is about focusing on the Present vs. Future.


Present-oriented cultures see the past as passed and the future as uncertain. Or, better said, what is done is done, and tomorrow may never come. Immediate results and short-term benefits are the main focus. These cultures tend to be risk-averse.


Future-oriented cultures think they understand the future and that they can shape it through their actions. They are not risk-averse societies, and they are quite the opposite.


All right! So, now let’s go back to those phrases at the beginning of this post. Can you identify which cultural time-orientations they come from?


Do you think these aspects are part of the Canadian in China mystery?

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