Saturday, October 16, 2010

Time speaks, different accents

Eternal clock
Eternal clock by Robbert van der Steeg

Have you noticed that people from different countries manage time differently? Germans are known for their accuracy with time and for their desire to schedule everything in. My friend from Germany told me that in any business, Germans try to foresee everything in order to avoid errors and accidents. Perhaps this is why German highways are so good. People from North America (I didn't see any difference between Americans and Canadians while I was there) are into time management too. “Getting things done” is one of their most popular mantras. Another friend in Canada explained to me that 'this culture prefers to pretend that (almost) everything can be controlled or manipulated. We like to think that we are in charge, not the weather or circumstances. It helps people feel more secure, even though it's an illusion.' The Russian attitude to time management is the opposite: Russians value spontaneous decisions over scheduling and prefer staying flexible and open to the ever-changing circumstances rather then standing firm in our plans.

When preparing market reports, I often ask various companies for the outlook for the next six months or the next year. My sources sometimes fail to provide me with such information because the visibility of the Russian market and Russian society on the whole is very low. During the last few decades, life in Russia has been extremely volatile, so nobody is crazy enough to make any kind of forecasts. Our experience teaches us that any plans can be smashed by uncontrollable forces – political intrigues, economic disasters, sudden bankruptcies, and so on.

When my husband and I were in Canada, we went crazy because of the ubiquitous scheduling. Once, our friends invited us to a BBQ party about one month in advance. Another of our friends asked us if we could meet them for dinner on May 22, when it was only April 28... It seemed so weird for us. We just arrived in the country and had no idea what would happen to us for the next three days. How could we plan for one month down the line? We are used to living spontaneous lives and do not build long-term plans. Moreover, we felt this rather annoying when people around expected us to have long-term plans and long-term schedules. Well, Mr. Edward T. Hall stated that culture roots deeply in unconsciousness, and irrational irritation is the true signal of the culture clash.

If you are doing business in Russia, it could be useful to bear in mind the Russian attitude to time management. In business, Russians do not consider deadlines sacred and normally do not expect colleagues to meet deadlines. Well, not really. Of course, like everywhere in the world, we have plans and schedules, but when it comes to a teamwork, every team leader knows that meeting deadlines is almost impossible to achieve. When I lead a project, I prefer to shift the deadline for 2-3 days ahead. I know that some team members will fail to meet the deadline and need these 2-3 days badly in order to complete their work. I'm not the only one who uses this trick to hack the Russian habit of not meeting deadlines.

In Russia, arriving late 5-15 minutes for a business meeting is completely acceptable. A person who is late 5 minutes may skip pardoning altogether. Some tops of the tops may be late for one hour, and the others would excuse this.

Russians tend to split business and personal life. In personal life, time management is considered as lacking emotion and unnatural behavior. This is pretty normal to give a call to a friend and ask to meet them or spontaneously visit a friend. We are expected to place a higher priority for family and friends, so parents may feel abused if a grown-up kid says “Sorry, I'm busy today and tomorrow, let's meet next week at 6 PM.”

How does your culture manage time? Do you prefer planning or acting spontaneously? Is being on time important in your culture? I appreciate your comments!