Experiencing a different time system than what you’re used to, either when interacting with people from a different culture or when moving to a new country, can be a source of deep “culture shock”. Being unaware that there are time systems completely different from those familiar to you can lead to incorrect assumptions, serious misunderstandings, and a lot of frustration.

Imagine yourself inviting people to your new home for a welcome party at 6 pm. When will your guests arrive? When would you like your guests to arrive? The answers to these questions depend heavily on the cultural background of each of your guests and of yourself. I’m from Austria, and in general, for us 6 pm means exactly 6 pm. However, my Puerto Rican husband enlightened me about the concept of “Puerto Rican” time. In general, an invitation for 6 pm means that you should show up around 8 pm. Although you would be welcomed at 6 pm, most preparations would not have been completed yet. The host may even put you to work.

Think about how you perceive time. Are you worried about wasting time, losing time or being late? Do you often feel time is running out and you wish you had more time? Then you operate on monochronic time, where time is tangible and limited. Because time is seen as limited, people and cultures on monochronic time value schedules, punctuality, and promptness. They take time commitments very seriously, like to focus on one thing at a time, and don’t appreciate interruptions. They also value orderliness and rely strongly on contracts and rule-by-law. In general, Northern Europeans and North Americans have a monochronic view of time.

Or maybe you live more “in the moment”. Do you forget about your schedule if you run into a friend even if this means being late? Do you usually do several things at a time and don’t mind being interrupted? Are you more concerned with people who are close to you? Then you adhere to polychronic time where human contact and relationships are valued more than a set schedule. Relationships and the completion of a transaction are more important than schedules and procedures. In general, Mediterranean, Latin American, Asian, and Arab cultures have a polychronic view of time.

As a polychronic person in a polychronic society or a monochronic person in a monochronic society you probably aren’t even aware of different time systems and just assume that your way is the only right way. On the other hand, can you imagine the frustrations and misunderstandings that can arise for everyone involved if a monochronic person in a polychronic society insists on a set schedule and interprets a change of plans or being late as a personal insult? Similarly, can you imagine the resentment that would be experienced if a polychronic person in a monochronic society expects understanding every time he changes plans short-notice or doesn’t show up at all because his family or a friend needed him?

On what side do you find yourself? Are you a typical monochronic person who is always on time or even a little early and starts to look anxiously at the clock if the other person doesn’t show up at the appointed time? Do you feel time is exact and do you interpret being late as being rude and disrespectful? Or are you more on the polychronic side and find it hard to tear yourself away from a task you’re really involved in? Do you always have some last minute chores to do before leaving for an appointment? Do you find being on time isn’t that important and you don’t take it personally if you’re kept waiting?
How can frustrations and misunderstandings on both sides be avoided? I believe, first you must acknowledge that neither side is right or wrong. They are just different and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Second, you have to understand the time pattern of your own culture and your personal preference. Only if you have a good understanding of how you manage time will you be able to understand others. Now you’re ready to compare with your new environment. This reflection will help you to learn what is expected of you in different situations in the new culture much faster and with less stress.

How do I handle time differently since I became aware of these two systems? I’m still more on the monochronic side and probably always will be. I like to be on time, know what comes next, and prefer to focus on one project at a time, but I’ve made a conscious decision to be more in the moment. As a result, I don’t get stressed out so much if I run late or have to change plans. When I feel the pressure of time or of my to-do-list I pause, take a deep breath, and tell myself that everything is all right and “on time”. It will get done when it gets done. I feel, this more flexible approach to time has allowed me to be really present in my relationships. I believe, it has made me a better listener, because I’m not pre-occupied with my next task or what time it is. I also find myself more understanding and less judgmental if I’m kept waiting by somebody who is running late and don’t take it personally. Whether you’re monochronic or polychronic let’s remember that we all really just have the present moment.

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Author's Bio: 

Lisa Velazquez is a Cross-Cultural Trainer and Coach specializing in Cultural Transition who helps individuals and families adjust to a new culture through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, and presentations on cultural topics to interested groups. For more information visit lisavel.com and sign up for your free "Three Simple Techniques for a Successful Adjustment to a New Culture" PDF and for the free monthly newsletter "Building Cultural Awareness".