Headbloom Blog

Is Time Scarce or Abundant? How Your View Will Affect Your Work in the U.S.
This guest blog is graciously contributed by Lindsay McMahon. Her bio-data can be found at the end of this reading.

WHEN we’re living and working in a new country, we want to be successful. We want to connect with people and move closer to our personal and professional goals. In order to make this happen, we put all of the pieces in place. We arrange for a bank account, find a place to live, and even map out restaurants in our neighborhood that remind us of our home country.

However, while we are busy making sure that the logistics are in order, we miss one very fundamental piece of the equation. We forget that even though we now have a local address and a subway pass that looks the same as everyone else’s, we are from a different part of the world and functioning with a different worldview from our colleagues. We rarely think about how this difference could affect our success at work.

Time orientation is one of these fundamental differences. How do you use time? Do you come from a culture where time is flexible, abundant, and used to accomplish various things simultaneously? Have you noticed that U.S. Americans treat time as a commodity? To Americans, time is something that can be sold, bought, borrowed, wasted, or stolen. If you plan to work on a team with colleagues who view time differently, you might be in for a challenge.

What can you do? Learn as much as possible about yourself and your colleagues. Let’s take a look at the different ways that people use time.

SCENARIO #1: You have an appointment scheduled with your American boss at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning. Before your meeting, you wander around the office and check in with your colleagues. You ask them how their weekend was and what they did. To you, this is an important part of the day. This time matters not just because you like to socialize, but because strong relationships at work are crucial if anything is going to get done. Just before you are about to go see the boss, a colleague calls you into his office to look at some photos. His daughter got married over the weekend and he is thrilled to tell you about it. Your watch says it is already 10:05 a.m., your meeting was supposed to begin 5 minutes ago, but you are sure that your boss will understand. After all, you are cultivating relationships with your colleagues and as soon as your chat ends, your meeting with him will get started. A few pictures later, it is 10:15 a.m. You knock on your boss’s door. He is standing in front of his desk with his arms crossed, pointing to his watch. He is furious. What happened?

  • Clock Time: In cultures that operate on clock time, tasks and meetings start and end based on what the clock says. Time is broken down into measurable pieces like hours and minutes. People prefer to schedule a time and date for tasks to be completed. Punctuality is everything in these cultures, and if you arrive late people may think you are disrespectful or lazy.
  • Event Time: In cultures that function on event time, meetings do not always start at an exact time. People from these cultures realize that time cannot always be controlled and manipulated. Time is fluid. They do not always expect the bus to arrive at a specific time. In many cases, cultivating a relationship is more important than beginning a meeting at a precisely scheduled time.


SCENARIO #2: Joe is an American businessman working for a large technology company in New York City. His company has recently partnered with a Brazilian firm to carry out a project. He flies to Rio de Janeiro to spend a week working with the new partners. His plan is to finalize the agreement and start collaborating with them on some of the details. Joe is used to working from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Back in New York, when the clock strikes 5, business is done for the day. He then moves on to some of his favorite activities like playing tennis. Joe is surprised when his colleagues ask him to join them for dinner and a beer when the workday finally ends at 9 p.m. Joe turns down their offer because he needs some time away from work. What does Joe need to know?

  • Accomplish one task at a time: In a monochronic culture like the United States, people are likely to focus on one task at a time. Professionals complete one task and move on to the next. The most important thing in a monochronic culture is completing the task. Relationships usually come second. Work is clearly separated from time spent building relationships.
  • Accomplish many tasks at the same time: In a polychronic culture like Brazil, an evening out for dinner with colleagues could be an opportunity to accomplish a few goals. They are better able to “do business” during the day by building rapport socializing and enjoying in the evening. In the office, people are likely to switch back and forth between different tasks. A main concern in a polychronic culture is the people and the relationships, not the task.

SCENARIO #3: While working as a business English teacher in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was assigned to teach professionals in different organizations around the city. On my third day of work, I had four lessons scheduled at different companies in downtown Buenos Aires. The morning started early. It would be a busy day, but I was ready! My schedule was tight, but as long as the bus got me to my first appointment on time, I would be able to stay on schedule throughout the day. With my bus schedule and map in hand, I waited for 30 minutes, eyes glued to the hazy highway, waiting for bus 59 to emerge from the chaotic main drag. The bus never came. Panicked, I rushed to phone my manager in the head office. I anxiously yelled into the phone, “My bus didn’t come and I will have to take the train! I will be late and…and….” My manager shocked me with her calm response. She said, “Lindsay, relax. Just let Mr. Mancuso know you will be a little late and you can get started whenever you arrive.” I couldn’t believe it. This was business. Didn’t they take it seriously? Fortunately, when I arrived at my student’s workplace, we had plenty of time. What did I not know about Argentine culture?

  • Time is abundant: In abundance cultures like Argentina, time is continuous and cyclical. It is not finite. The feeling is that there will always be more time. It will not run out. It would be unusual for someone to ask you to “respect their time” or let you know how much their “time is worth.”
  • Time is scarce: In scarcity cultures, time is rare and linear, so it is necessary to prioritize tasks. People guard and protect their time as if it were currency. In these cultures, time can be wasted, saved, lost, or maximized.

Living and working in a new culture is a fantastic opportunity for personal and professional growth. Being aware of the different ways that time is viewed in your home culture and your host culture will help you prepare for any confusion or disagreements that you might encounter. Increase your cultural awareness, maintain a sense of humor, and enjoy the learning process! Good luck!

To learn more about time orientation, you can read the original work of Edward T. Hall.

image Lindsay McMahon is the founder of English and Culture, based in Boston, Massachusetts. She enjoys helping international professionals reach their goals through English tutoring and cultural competence training. If you would like to stay in touch and read more from Lindsay, you can subscribe to her monthly newsletter.

All photos via Flickr: clocks, Time is Money, business lunch, Buenos Aires traffic

Alan Headbloom