Scenario: A U.S. real estate agent in Newport, Rhode Island, expects a client from Brazil to arrive at his office at 10:00 am to tour three properties with him and discuss next steps over lunch. By the time the client arrives, 40 minutes late, the agent is already worried about their noon reservation. While touring the homes, the client takes three calls, creating additional delays.
Cultural differences aren’t limited to communication styles. Perceptions of time—and how those perceptions impact scheduling and planning—may also trigger cross-cultural confusion and frustration.
In some cultures, like Germany and Switzerland, things tend to go according to plan, including precision train departures and arrivals. Generally speaking, it’s in bad form to show up late for an appointment, since one delay impacts the next commitment, and the next.
In other cultures, especially in developing nations, it’s broadly accepted that change is constant. Traffic delays and other disruptions are common. Everyone is accustomed to dealing with unexpected circumstances.
Linear- versus flexible-time
Among cross-culturalists who study business scheduling preferences, Erin Meyer places countries along a scheduling scale, ranging from linear-time to flexible-time. In her model:
How late is late? It all depends. Each culture has its subtle conventions.
The countries on Meyer’s scheduling continuum can be organized into four broad groups:
1. Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, and Northern European cultures generally prefer linear-time. With strong roots in these cultures, the United States also skews to the linear side.
2. Latin cultures, both Latin European and Latin American, tend to operate on the flexible-time side of the scale.
3. Middle Eastern and African cultures exhibit some of the strongest preferences for flexible-time.
4. Asian cultures are scattered across the scale: Japan prefers linear-time, whereas China and India practice flexible-time.
As a business consultant, Meyer helps cross-cultural organizations understand and work together more effectively. Global real estate agents may also find it helpful to understand these cultural preferences, especially when traveling to another country.
How late is late? It all depends. Each culture has its subtle conventions. Do as much research as possible, rely on experience to make appropriate adjustments, and don’t make negative assumptions.
Interestingly, the scheduling dimension impacts much more than timeliness for appointments. It also affects other interpersonal dynamics, including how meetings are run (with formal agendas versus impromptu discussions) and how people form lines (in a strict queue versus a looser funnel of traffic).
What influences the clock?
History plays an essential role in some cultural scheduling preferences. In highly industrialized nations, for example, business practices have adopted the linear processes initially employed in factories, where workflow interruptions literally resulted in time-equals-money problems.
In other cultures, personal relationships are the primary driver of time and scheduling decisions. Where relationships come first, the clock takes second place. For example, a client from a relationship-based culture could easily feel insulted if you cut a meeting short, due to another commitment.
Interestingly, when viewed on a map, many side-by-side countries share cultural similarities, but the shifts at borders can be dramatic. For example, regarding scheduling preferences, compare Switzerland, a country where clock-making is practically a national symbol, to Italy, with its casual Mediterranean influences.
Adapting your style
Even though differences in scheduling styles may create conflicts, for most global agents, it’s relatively easy to adjust and accommodate clients, whether you’re moving to the right or the left of your scheduling preference.
In the case of the U.S. agent mentioned earlier, it turned out his client from Brazil had already contacted the restaurant and pushed the lunch reservation back an hour because he recognized the importance of timeliness at U.S. restaurants.
The agent was late for his afternoon commitments, but now he understands that some clients operate on different scheduling assumptions. He does his best to keep his calendar open and flexible, giving himself time to focus on cultivating personal relationships with clients who place a high priority on this aspect of the transaction.