Deadlines and schedules across cultures

What happens when a person from a culture that places a great deal of importance on meeting deadlines interacts with someone from a culture that takes a less literal approach to scheduling?

Individuals meet groups

Being aware of how another culture views deadlines can help us avoid misunderstandings and drawing shortsighted conclusions. For example, an American businessman shouldn’t email a Japanese counterpart in Tokyo and expect a quick answer to an ‘urgent query’ regarding a deal (standard etiquette in the US). The Japanese person will likely have to seek a consensus within their office before responding (standard etiquette in Japan). For the results-oriented American, if he or she is unfamiliar with Japanese culture, the ensuing silence is disconcerting.

Literal meets figurative

We could equally imagine a German office arranging a deadline with a Spanish partner. Both parties will, for cultural reasons, possibly view the deadline quite differently. The former sees the date as literal and unwavering. The latter, however, sees it more flexibly, not just because a long-standing relationship trumps the speed of the result, but also because circumstances may change.

Linear meets cyclical

As western cultures tend to view time as linear and limited in supply business operations tend to measure progress with milestones and deadlines. If someone fails to meet a deadline, they might be seen as having a poor work ethic (or simply incompetent). By contrast, many Asian cultures perceive time as cyclical and endless. More importance is placed on doing things right and maintaining harmony, rather than worrying about a deadline. Patience is paramount.

Research your host country

As an expat partner living in another culture, there are plenty of advantages to researching the cultural mindset of your host country. It can help to avoid frustration or misunderstandings should you join the local workforce, set up a small business or even if you’re arranging maintenance. Heightening our cross- or intercultural awareness can help us avoid reverting to damaging stereotypes.

The land of no timetables

At the very least, understanding how your host country’s culture generally views deadlines and scheduling might also help you know when you don’t need to rush for the bus. For example, in Switzerland, a country which prides itself on meticulous timekeeping, planes, buses and trains leave on the dot. While at the other extreme, in Madagascar, well, there are no timetables. Buses simply depart the station when they’re full.

This article was originally published for the thousands of expat partners that Global Connection supports around the globe. It is reproduced here in its original form.

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