The problem with cross-cultural tools is that most people (well, let’s say most Anglo-American people) want answers: “how to do business with the X “ and “the dos and don’ts of dealing with the Y” and such . Cross-cultural tools don’t provide checklists, guidelines and rules of behaviour – the tip of the iceberg stuff. Instead, these tools help you chip away at the part of the iceberg that lies below the surface -- the “whys” of visible behaviours. They provide questions that help your eyes and ears and mind open up just enough to let in a glimmer of cross-cultural understanding.
Take the concept of time.
Simple, you think: Day/night, yesterday/today/tomorrow, history/present/future, breakfast/lunch/dinner, work/play, deadlines/schedules, 9am/9pm, one thing after another, minute by minute, hour by hour the clock clicks away. Or is it that simple?
Here are some questions.
Is time limited and people need to bend to fit into its rigid confines?
Or, is time flexible and can expand or contract to meet people’s needs?
In any given situation, on a scale of 1-10, which are more important, the needs of people or the demands of time?
Is there always more time?
Do you identify alternative solutions for various possible future events that could interfere with your plans?
Or do you plan to address future events (should they take place) by making adjustments along the way as the need arises?
Are deadlines and schedules sacred or easily changed?
Are plans hard to change or fluid in nature?
Are people generally too busy or generally have time to see you?
Is there such a thing as an interruption?
Do people tend to live by an external or internal clock?
Where do you stand on these questions? Do the answers seem obvious? They are not. The answers depend on cultural values -- not simply the way things are.
Many Americans move to Italy because it feels “more relaxed”, there is more time, the pace is not so frantic. Yet at the same time they feel very put off when in a meeting, an Italian answers the phone in mid-sentence and holds a long conversation with whomever is on the other end. We consider it an unforgivable interruption (to our linear time frame), he doesn’t (in his poly-functional time frame). After ten minutes, he puts down the receiver, turns around and continues as if time had simply taken a detour and was now back on the main road. He doesn’t understand why you look upset…..the person on the line would have thought him terribly rude if he had told them to call back because he was in a meeting – what’s more important, the timing of a meeting or ongoing relationships? What loss is it of yours to wait for ten minutes in the context of our relationship. Maybe next time you will be the person on the phone and how would you feel if he brushed you off. Time and relationships, relationships and time -- not that simple after all.