Formality and Tempo

The breezy informality and haste that seen to characterize American business relationships appear to be American exclusives that business people form other countries not only fail to share but also fail to appreciate. A German executive commented that he was taken aback when employees of his Indiana client called him by his first name. He noted in Germany you don’t do that until you know someone for 10 years – and never if you are at a lower rank. This apparent informality however does not indicate a lack of commitment to the job. Comparing British and American business managers, an English executive commented about the American manager’s compelling involvement in business. At a cocktail party or a dinner, the American is still on duty.

Even though Northern Europeans seem to have picked up some American attitudes in recent years, do not count on them being Americanized. While using names in business encounters is regarded as an American vice in many countries no where it is found more offensive than in France, where formality still reigns. Those who work side by side for years still address one another with formal pronouns. France is higher on Hofstede’s Power Distance Index (PDI) than the United States, and such differences can lead to cultural misunderstandings. For example, the formalities of French business practices as opposed to Americans’ casual manners are symbols of the French need to show rank and Americans’ tendency to downplay. Thus the French are dubbed snobbish by Americans, while the French consider Americans, crude and unsophisticated.

Haste and impatience are probably the most common mistakes of North Americans attempting to trade in the Middle East. Most Arabs do not like to embark on serious business discussions until after two to three opportunities to meet the individual they are dealing with; negotiations are likely to be prolonged. Arabs may make rapid decisions once they are prepared to do so, but they do not to be rushed and they do not like deadlines. The managing partner of the Kuwait office of KPMG Peat Marwick says of the flying visit approach of many American business people. What in the West might be regarded as dynamic activity – like “I’ve only got a day here approach” – may well be regarded here as merely rude.

Marketers who expect maximum success have to deal with foreign executives in ways that are acceptable to the foreigner. Latin Americans depend greatly on friendships but establish these friendships only in the South American way: slowly, over a considerable period of time. A typical Latin American is highly formal until a genuine relationship of respect and friendship is established. Even then the Latin American is slow to get down to business and will not be pushed. In keeping with the culture is good enough. How people perceive time helps to explain some of the differences between US managers and those from other cultures.

North Americans are a more time bound culture than Middle Eastern and Latin cultures. Our stereotype of those cultures is they are always late, and their view of us is you are always prompt. Neither statement is completely true though both contain some truth. What is true, however, is that we are a very time oriented society – time is money to us – whereas in other cultures time is to be savored not spent.

Edward T Hall defines two time systems in the World mono-chronic and poly-chronic time. M-time or mono-chronic time, typifies most North Americans, Swiss, Germans, and Scandinavians. These Western cultures tend to concentrate on one thing at a time. They divide time into small units and are concerned with promptness. M-time is used in a linear way and it is experienced as being almost tangible in that one saves time wastes time, bides time, spends time, and loses time. Most low context cultures operate on M-time. P-time or poly-chronic time, is more dominant in high context cultures, where the completion of a human transaction is emphasized more than holding to schedules. P-time is characterized by the simultaneous occurrence of many things and by a great involvement with people. P-time allows for relationships to build and context to be absorbed as parts of high context cultures.

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