Given the worlds extensive history and diverse variety, it is interesting how many common concepts, such as time, are rooted so firmly in a similar manner in very different societies. What is commonly not recognized is that each culture has its own notion of these concepts that are present across all cultures. The general concept of time is very clear, however context and value vary widely. Because a person’s perception of time influences the way s/he understands time and behaves in respect to it, we ultimately have diverse views of time that are reflected in culture.
If we consider time from three vantage points – past, present and future – we can begin to understand why different cultures may espouse different orientations and the values that can be drawn from each worldview. As a leader in a global organization, it is critically important for you to understand not only that time may be viewed as scarce or plentiful, but also the context of time and how decisions are made. How process, policy, and procedure is implemented and executed, may be significantly driven by the source of time orientation – past, present, and future worldviews.
Past: For many cultures, the past is, understandably, very important. Lessons learned from past mistakes are remembered and applied to current situations. In East Asia, for example, past events, notable scholars, as well as ancestors are honored and observed in ways other cultures may not fully understand. Historical context is extremely important to many European cultures as well, where nearly every speech, book or article begins with background material providing historical perspective. The value of the past lies in memory and history. When partnering with someone with a past orientation, it is extremely useful to frame the situation so as to allow the future to become more credible as it evolves into a new occurrence of the past. Learning from past mistakes helps to ensure we will not let them happen again. Alternatively, thinking back to positive outcomes inspires us to emulate the behaviors that resulted in positive outcomes.
Present: Many traditional cultures live in an “eternal” present. For example, many African and Native American cultures do not have verb tenses to indicate past occurrences or future events – everything is referred to in the present tense. Another people focused on the present are Americans, who are heavily influenced by the ideas of instant gratification and short term benefits. The importance of the present is captured in the famous adage, “carpe diem” (seize the day) and in the common belief that the present is where life takes place. The challenge with a solely “in the here and now” mentality is that mistakes of the past can often be overlooked (and thus repeated), while at the same time no clear direction is defined and there is little to strive for if the future is negated.
Future: A future focused orientation usually coincides with a long-term worldview and typically resides within relationship and obligation-based cultures. Chinese and Japanese cultures, for example, are careful to build mutual commitment to relationships because they understand that many years from the present time, those relationships will continue to grow and add value. It is the view that short-term profit is not nearly as valuable as long-term growth. The future gives meaning to our present actions and defines where our dreams will materialize (if sufficient effort is made) – an important concept.
Beyond its presence in our actions, time is inherent in what we communicate. Obviously, a good balance between past, present, and future orientation is optimal, however most individuals do not occupy the precise center-point on the continuum. In order to bridge the cultural gap, you (as an intuitive global leader) must be willing and able to adapt to different time orientations, as is relevant to the culturally diverse audience you are partnering with, which is directly reflected in how you communicate. When a leader can frame communications in such a way as to connect with a preferred worldview, there is a significantly higher probability that culturally diverse orientations will connect and create leverage – to everyone’s advantage.
What can you, as a global leader, learn from others’ vantage point of time?
For the next several weeks, I will be discussing specific cultural orientations that will facilitate successful communications and business results. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com. Check back next week for the next installation in a multi-tiered discussion on understanding cultural orientations for successful communication Across Boundaries & Borders.