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Etiquette column: Time’s importance can vary by culture

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Friday, September 07, 2012 12:01 am
Times may have changed, but courtesy never goes out of style. In today's world sometimes it's complicated to figure out how to do the right thing. Local etiquette expert Karen Hickman answers your questions or helps solve your dilemmas on Fridays in The News-Sentinel and at news-sentinel.com.Q. Karen, I have been working with clients in the Arab world and I have noticed that their perception of time is very different from Americans. It is very difficult to get what I consider to be a timely response from them. Any suggestions on how to handle this without insulting them?

A. There is no question some countries and cultures value time differently than Americans. In 1966 the late anthropologist Edward T. Hall identified this difference and explained it in detail in his book “The Hidden Dimension.” It's a book I consider to be worth the read if you do a lot of work with internationals. He describes two types of cultures: monochronic cultures and polychronic cultures.

Americans, along with Canadians and Western Europeans, live in a monochronic culture. We do things in a linear fashion and consider time to be a commodity. We schedule appointments and usually do one thing at a time. Promptness is emphasized, deadlines are taken very seriously and we get very caught up in doing the “job.”

Polychronic cultures, such as in Eastern Asia, Latin America, Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries, and Arab countries do things very differently. Often several things are happening at once, they are rarely “on time” and they often take time commitments lightly. An 11 a.m. appointment for them might happen at 11:45 a.m. These cultures emphasize relationships over the job. This is not an insult to Westerners, but the way they view the world. It can be frustrating if someone is trying to meet a deadline.

To avoid as much frustration as possible, give a lot of lead time when trying to get something done, and try giving a specific date for when something is needed. However, if you are on their turf you may just have to relax and realize this is the way it's done.


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