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Cultural differences: approach to time

Saskia Maarse | March 24, 2021

When I ask Dutch people: “How do you feel when people arrive late?”, most of them are quite honest: “Those people are annoying; they ruin the schedule and don’t take into account the fact that people are waiting for them. Being late is inappropriate and disrespectful and is seen as untrustworthy: You cannot count on them.”

Time is a fascinating concept that has been researched many times by philosophers, anthropologists and modern scientists. There are many different perceptions of time that are caused partially by culture.

Linear time
This concept of time is perceived as a straight line by both the Dutch and most other Northern countries. They work in strict time schedules and the deadlines are sacred. Everything goes step by step and the agenda decides the order of our activities. Interruptions are not done en you don’t keep people waiting for you. Time is something people hold on to. People are focused on efficiency, especially in the business world. Being on time is the norm.

Circular time
However, many countries perceive time as a circular concept, where deadlines and schedules are seen as a suggested guideline. Many activities take place at the same time and interruptions are part of it. People that perceive time as a circular concept, like Italy, Russia and Nigeria, also set certain targets, but believe that there are many different ways to reach these targets. Flexibility is the norm.

From our own cultural perception, we believe our way is the best and most efficient. Of course this leads to misunderstandings and frustrations towards people that have a different approach to time.

How to deal with different time perceptions?
Do you work together with people that have a circular perception of time, like the Spanish, Brazilians, Asians or people from Africa? Do you want to prevent yourself from getting annoyed or frustrated with your colleague that is late or because things aren’t going according to schedule? Try to work on other things in the time that you are waiting. Make some phone calls, answer some emails or just take a cup of coffee. As soon as you see time as a tool or guideline, rather than an obligation, you will learn:

  • To solve problems quickly and on the spot.
  • To multitask
  • To work on several things at the same time
  • To adjust more easily to different circumstances.

Do you always arrive late?
Are you flexible when it comes to time? And do you have an appointment with someone from a culture that perceives time as a linear concept? (Pay attention: not all the Dutch, Germans and Swiss are focused on being on time)

  • Don’t make excuses like: “Sorry, my train was delayed.” Or “I was stuck in traffic.” Usually the other person will not be able to put himself in your shoes. The damage has already been done. That is why it is usually better to respond like “Thank you for waiting.” Or “Thank you for being so flexible”. When the other person asks why you are late, you can still give them the reason.
  • Overestimate the time that you need. The classic mistake for people that are late is to believe they still have enough time to do one or two more things. Always assume everything will take longer than you think and you will usually be on time.

About Saskia Maarse

Saskia Maarse is an intercultural speaker, trainer and author. She writes and speaks about Dutch culture in both business / professional and social life. In her blogs, books and professional talks and workshops she uncovers the origins of deep-rooted Dutch characteristics. Saskia also explains what we can learn from and about other cultures – in areas like communication, leadership and human behaviour.

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