How we view time across cultures

Whether you’re joining the workforce or just socialising with locals, having a good insight into how people in your host country consider time can help avoid misunderstandings.


According to Richard Lewis, author of When Cultures Collide, the US, Switzerland, Germany, Britain and Scandinavia would all be cultures that have a linear vision of time. In these countries the clock is always ticking and, if no decisions are being made, or actions being performed, time’s being wasted. Typically people from a linear-active culture won’t be too impressed by someone arriving late to an appointment.

Taking their time

By contrast, Lewis believes, cultures in Latin and Arab spheres are multi-actives that would gladly ignore the passing of time if it means that conversations can continue: “They pretend to observe schedules, especially if a linear-active partner or colleague insists on it, but they consider the present reality to be more important than appointments,” says Lewis.

What goes around…

“In some Eastern cultures time is viewed neither as linear- nor event-relationship related, but as cyclic,” says Lewis. For these cultures, a period of reflection is considered time well spent and etiquette is hugely important. When it comes to appointments, people from multi-active and cylic cultures might feel slighted should their guest abruptly announce they have somewhere else to be.

Everyone’s right on time

Whomever we interact with, we must do our best not to view other cultures through the lens of our own. When a time-management coach organised a trip for a multicultural group, she informed everyone of the departure time. Some Germans arrived 10 minutes early, a few Belgians arrived exactly on time, a cluster of Americans a few minutes later while some Lebanese rolled in about an hour after everyone else. The coach noted that all of these individuals believed they were there at the appropriate time.

Cross-cultural coffee dates

So whether you come from a linear-active, multi-active or cyclical culture, it’s good to consider how your host country generally views time. Even if you’re just going for a coffee with a local, consider the expectations of the appointment. If you come from a linear-active culture and travel to a Latin or Asian country, showing cross-cultural sensitivity might mean not jumping up and saying: “I’ve got to rush!” If you’re travelling in the other direction, it might mean being aware the date will conclude at a fixed time.

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