Decode A Culture – Perception of Time (Monochronic Vs. Polychronic)

An event is scheduled at 4 P.M. There is an Indian, an American, and a Japanese attending. Can you guess who will arrive when, and what they perceive as “late”?

Perception of time is a major cultural difference. I used to think that it has something to do with desire to be productive but I was wrong. It is more deep rooted than that. In fact, it is naive to always interpret it as a lack of productivity or lack of interest.


Because how seriously people take time is strongly influenced by the culture they grew up in, and work in. Just like any other cultural factor, perception of time should also be understood as a cultural difference. But because most behavioral standards in the business world are set by the countries that behave a certain way, this aspect the least likely to be excused for being a cultural difference.

Let’s see how.

There are 2 ways time is perceived – Mono-chronic and Poly-chronic.

Monochronic Cultures:

These are the cultures where time is perceived as a phenomenon that occurs only once, and never again. A second gone, is a second lost. You are never going to get it back ever again.

Naturally, these cultures have a sense of urgency when it comes to making the best use of the time. If not “well-spent”, they feel like they are losing something valuable. And who likes losing a valuable commodity?

The phrase “Time is money” must have originated from a mono-chronic culture. πŸ˜‰

The USA, Germany, Japan, China, UK, are examples of such mono-chronic cultures.

How does this value exhibit in the behavior?

People from monochronic cultures always try to be on time. Showing up late is considered to be disrespectful. It is interpreted as a sign of disinterest in the activity at hand. They emphasize the use of project planners, detailed schedules, and timelines.

A funny observation is that monochronic cultures do not mind calling meetings first thing in the morning or the last thing before the work day ends, as they do not entertain the possibility of starting or finishing later than planned. πŸ˜‰

I distinctly remember this one dinner with my Japanese friends. I had invited her for dinner at my home at 5 P.M. When I shared this with my uncle, he warned me,

“Be ready by 5 P.M. You can watch the clock. She will be here EXACTLY at 5.”

I thought, he is exaggerating so that I take his “Be ready” warning seriously. I was ready in time, and I decided to seriously watch the clock.

You would not believe this, but as soon as the clock turned from 4:59 P.M. to 5:00 P.M., I heard the bell ring. My friend was at the door.

I was so amused that I asked her about it. Her explanation was even more amusing. She said, “I had arrived a couple of minutes early. But I did not want to waste your time either, so I did not ring the bell until 5 o’clock.”

Needless to say that perception of time was a part of our conversation over the dinner. She also shared that although showing up at the exact time has become her habit, sometimes it can be very stressful.

Of course, not all monochronic cultures are this precise about time. In Germany, 2-3 minutes late can be tolerated, whereas in the USA being 5-7 minutes late can be acceptable. It also varies with people that you are dealing with.

Now let’s see the other way people perceive time.

Polychronic Cultures:

The prefix “poly” means many. In contrast, “mono” means one. The polychronic cultures view time as a phenomenon which occurs multiple times. It repeats in a cycle of 24 hours. A second gone is not a second lost. But it will repeat itself in another 24 hours.

That’s why polychronic cultures tend to take time a little lightly. They appreciate punctuality but may not reciprocate with it. There is no sense of urgency is using the time because it’s not going anywhere. All you have to do is wait another 24 hours, and it will be back. πŸ™‚

Examples of countries with polychronic cultures are India, Mexico, Greece, Italy, and many countries in the middle-east, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa.

It is my observation that polychronic cultures also tend be relationship oriented. Read more about relationship oriented cultures here.

In the business world, monochronic countries have led the economic progress in the 20th century which is why the standards of the best behavior are definitely skewed towards monochronic cultures. But if you see, there are more polychronic cultures than monochronic ones in our world. As more and more polychronic countries enter the global business, it becomes important to understand how they perceive time so that you do not lose valuable business or friendship opportunities by taking their behavior for the face value.

How does this value exhibit in the behavior?

People from polychronic cultures often show up later than the scheduled time for meetings or social gatherings. How much later totally depends on where they are on the spectrum. It can vary from 30 minutes later to even a few hours later. (Of course, personal habits also influence this behavior like any other cultural factor.)

I remember that one time when I was going for a party organized by my African friends. Mind you, I am an Indian so I cannot claim that I have always shown up on time for parties. In business, I do. But at parties, I try to. πŸ˜‰ This time, I was rushing myself to get there but I arrived at the venue 30 minutes later than the time I was told.

To my surprise, there were hardly a few people there, and they were all setting up the music system, food etc. I wondered if I am at the wrong location so I called my friend. She told me that the “real” party will not start until a few hours later. Sure enough, as the night progressed, people started showing up and the party was a blast! It’s just that all the festivities started literally 2-3 hours later than I had anticipated.

Can you imagine how my Japanese friend would have reacted in this situation!

Now about the question I asked at the beginning of this post:

An event is scheduled at 4 P.M. There is an Indian, an American, and a Japanese attending. Can you guess who will arrive when, and what they perceive as “late”?

There is a high chance that the Indian may arrive by 4:30 – 5:00, the American may arrive by 4:05-4:10, and the Japanese will arrive at 4:00. According to the Japanese, the other two are late. According to the American, the Indian is late. And according to the Indian, life is to live fully, and not to be counted in minutes! πŸ˜€

That’s why it becomes very important to understand where people stand when it comes to their perception of time. It will prevent some shocks, and will prepare you on what to expect.

Quick Tips:

If you are dealing with somebody from a monochronic culture:

  1. Find out what is considered late in their mind. Don’t be late for a social gathering. For business meetings, definitely be ready a couple of minutes before the scheduled start time.
  2. Know that being ready is different than arriving. If you have an 8:30 A.M. meeting, arrive there by say 8:15, so that you have a few minutes to catch a breath from climbing the stairs, plug in your laptop, grab a pen, open your notes, and gather your thoughts on the discussion about to happen.
  3. Call, email, and text if you are going to be late. Please do not stop at only one of these media to communicate. Do it all! The goal here is to show them that you do care about their time, and even if you are going to be late, you do not mean any disrespect. If they see you are trying real hard to inform them about your late arrival, they will understand these feelings which will reduce or even eliminate their negative feelings over your late arrival.
  4. When you are scheduling time, be sure you are super clear about the A.M. or P.M. part, and the timezone you have in mind. I have made a mistake of “assuming” both, and it’s no fun for either parties to sort out the confusion.
  5. Similarly, in every response to a meeting, confirm what you understand to be the right time. e.g. “Look forward to seeing you at 8 A.M. EST.” If you are communicating to somebody in a different country, include the city for easier and quick understanding of the timezone. e.g. “Look forward to talking to you via Skype at 8 A.M. EST. (New York time)”.


If you are dealing with somebody from a polychronic culture:

  1. Be patient! I have seen that people from polychronic cultures become ready later than the scheduled time because they spend more time in preparation (cooking, dressing up, finding the perfect gift for the host). If you think about it, they are working to build a strong relationship with you. Their way of showing respect is not in the time itself, but in the preparation and thought of making the best of the time that you will spend with them. Understand this desire.
  2. In business meetings or projects (or in social gatherings where you really cannot afford to be late), make sure you respectfully set clear standards of what is expected of them. When you set a deadline, emphasize multiple times (but politely, and in different words) that it is a strict deadline. Follow up with the team members to see where they stand, well in advance of the deadline, so that if they are falling behind you can either plan for the delay or provide the necessary support to finish the task on time.
  3. No matter what, plan a buffer time in the project schedule to account for such delays. People don’t change overnight, just like you cannot. So if you are a smart team leader, you will not expect them to change but would rather account for their cultural behavior in planning. Be your smart self!
  4. Tips #4 and #5 for monochronic cultures is also applicable here. Provide clear time with the timezone and city, and confirm it in your response. Many times, I send out a text or an email the day of or the day before the meeting, saying “Look forward to seeing you today at 3 P.M. at your office.” I have had people (from both types of cultures) responding to these emails with cancellations, possible delays, or rescheduling. I love this method of confirmation, because it saves me headache, and some times an unnecessary visit.
In conclusion:

Understand that cultural backgrounds and personal preferences will have an influence on how people perceive time. Just because the business standards are set by monochronic cultures, does not mean that everybody is going to follow those. There are more polychronic countries in the world than monochronic.

But know, that in both the types of cultures, if they perceive you are late, your credibility goes down, and it is almost always perceived as the lack of interest in that activity. So learn how to deal with and be effective in both of the types of cultures, despite the major spectral difference in what is perceived as late.

Today’s question:

I would love to know your stories and experiences about being too late or too early. Has your perception of time changed over the years because you started working in a different culture, or made new friends?

Do share in the comments!

Image credit: Alexas_Fotos


If this was the first article you read in the series of cultural differences – “Decode A Culture”, here is where you can find the first two:

Decode A Culture – Task Oriented Vs. Relationship Oriented
Decode A Culture – Individualistic Vs. Collectivist

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