December 15th, 2017

Case Study - Anita Meyer


The importance of understanding perceptions of time in the cross cultural relocation context

Every day we are faced with confrontations between people, groups, and nations who think, feel and act differently. At the same time, these people, groups and nations are exposed to common problems that require cooperation for finding a common solution. One of the reasons why so many solutions do not work or cannot be implemented is because differences in thinking among the partners have been ignored.

During my post graduate course Intercultural Communication and Management of Diversity at the Center for Intercultural Management and International Communication (CIMIC) in Mechelen, Belgium, I was confronted with a vast variety of interpretations of the concept of time. Never before had it occurred to me that apart from traditions, food, religion, education, the political and geographical climate, also the experience of time, would have a significant impact on the way we live, work, and plan for the future.

Throughout the one year CIMIC course, cultural trainers made us aware with exercises on problem solving, on time management, that “one might say that there are as many different kinds of time as human beings on this earth” (1). Asking around in the CIMIC classroom – only Belgian students, same culture - what the expression “on time” stands for, a dozen different answers were given for a dozen students present that day.

In Western European languages, we treat time as a continuum, divided into past, present and future, which makes it possible for us to feel that we can manage time, spend it, save it, or waste it. And yet, some cultures don’t have the word in their vocabulary, such as the Hopi native Americans (2).

This case study will look at the most important interpretations of time and how this aspect of culture affects the success of a relocation mission.



In my field of activity – relocation - we help families coming from all over the world to find a suitable home, to register their children in the right school, to integrate into their new community. Being aware of their interpretation of time, which in some cases is almost the opposite of our view on time, will facilitate the empathy of our relocation consultants. Empathy leads to listening for the right indicators to understand these family’s real needs, as demonstrated in the following example.

During conversations with a French Executive Director, one might become gradually aware of his achievements in the past, his excellent marks in a highly respected Parisian university; to him, where you come from will have an impact on where you are going from here. This person will be inclined to choose a traditional school for his children, a discrete but classy house for his family.

The Russian Sales Manager however, is more present and future oriented. His choices are based on getting the most out of today, which explains why a very ostentatiously luxurious house, bargained down to his budget, will make him very happy. If the relocation consultant manages to obtain that, the expat’s settling in process will start off with a positive attitude to the new life environment.

One family thrives on the past; the other only has eyes for achievements in the present and future.

The goal of this study is to expose some of the main lines of thinking on this subject, by referring to the perception of specialists in the field, namely Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars and Edward T. Hall.

The purpose is to improve the quality of relocation services, by adding this paper to the training material of the relocation consultants, and by encouraging them to adapt certain nuances in those elements of the settling in process that are influenced by cultural perceptions of time.


Theororetical Frameworks  

Geert Hofstede conducted through the 60’s and 70’s extensive research on cultural differences (3). He found culture could be described on different levels, comparable to the layers one peels off an onion (4).  The outer layers contain symbols (words, gestures, and clothes), heroes (people who serve as models of behavior), rituals, including ways of greeting, religious ceremonies, and also discourse (5), the way language is used in text and talk. These outer layers are visible to an outside observer. The cultural meaning, however, is invisible and lies in the way these practices are interpreted by the insiders of that culture, the ones that live in the tiny heart of the onion.

Time is part of this visible daily interaction, of communication, but its interpretation lies in the heart of the onion, in the culture and the values. The cultural meaning can create a value judgment based on time. For example, being late at a German meeting or being early at a Spanish party, are both considered inappropriate behavior in the respective countries.

Through further research into this “onion” model, Hofstede developed his theory of four dimensions (3): the Power Distance Index, the Individual and the Collective Society, the Masculinity-Femininity Dimension, the Avoidance of Uncertainty. This last dimension is closely linked to the concept of time. In strong uncertainty avoidance societies, life is hurried, and time is money. In weak uncertainty avoidance societies, people are able to work hard if there is a need for it, but they are not driven by an inner urge toward constant activity. Time is merely a framework to orient oneself in, but not something one is constantly watching.

After Geert Hofstede had worked with Michael Harris Bond from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who had conducted a comparison of the values of students from 10 different national or ethnic groups in the Asia-Pacific region (6), he complemented his initial four dimensions with a fifth one, Long-Term versus Short-Term Orientation. In the latest revised edition of Software of the Mind (4) dedicated a full chapter to the Confucius inspired vision of time, under the title “Yesterday, Now or Later?”. The long term orientation in this chapter expresses a dynamic orientation to the future, with virtues such as perseverance and thrift. The short term orientation adopts a static orientation towards the past and the present, illustrated by respect for tradition, preservation of “face”, and fulfilling social obligations.

Building on Hofstede’s five dimensions, Fons Trompenaars wrote Riding the Waves of Culture (7), the result of 10 years of research with Charles Hampden-Turner.

Their studies come to the conclusion that cultures differ by the solutions they find to problems. These problems are categorized under three themes: human relations, the environment and time. It seems that the solution brought forward to a random problem, is different in cultures where time is experienced as a sequence of events, in a certain chronology, as opposed to cultures where time is a synchronic concept, in which the past, the present and the future are a cyclic evolution, with interaction between all three. In other words, one’s achievements in the past, combined with one’s plans for the future, influence the decisions taken today.

A third cultural guru of our times, the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, approaches time in a similar way to Trompenaars. Chronological events belong in monochromic time, synchronic handlings take place in polychromic time.  Hall found the understanding of the interpretation of time to be so vital in making communication between different cultures work, that he devoted a whole book to The Other Dimension of Time (1) and (2).

According to his book, monochromic people do one thing at a time, concentrate on the job at hand, keep an eye on the clock, and emphasize job priorities and timeliness. At the other end of the spectrum, polychromic people do many things at the same time, are easily distracted, put relationships first and let these relationships determine their time schedule; the job will get done, but in their own time.



If Hofstede, Trompenaars and Hall decide that the interpretation of time is fundamental for intercultural relationships, they are likely to be relevant and important for those working across cultures.

This study has the purpose to be handed out as a training tool for our staff, therefore the examples given below for daily use in relocation business, are intentionally aimed at nationalities we frequently welcome to our country, and compared to the Belgian culture they will be faced with.

  Hofstede made an evaluation of employee value systems based on 117,000 questionnaires sent to the employees of IBM across the globe in the early 70’s. His initial 4 dimensions of culture have evolved with time; they have been extended to new cultures opening up (China, former East Bloc countries) and after working and teaching there for a few years, he noticed a remarkable difference between the Northern part (Flemish) and the Southern part (French) of Belgium (4).

Taking a closer look at Hofstede’s Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) (appendix I and I bis), we see that Flemish Belgium scores in the top 5 of the strongest uncertainty avoidance group. It means that we expect strict timetables, detailed assignments, precise objectives, accuracy; there is only one correct answer to every question. Less uncertainty avoidance focused people despise too much structure, they like broad assignments, vague objectives, no timetables at all; they expect to be rewarded for originality, also in the variety of correct answers to a particular question. Sweden and Denmark are at the complete opposite end of the index and feel comfortable in this latter description. The Belgian relocation consultant, who is assisting a Swedish family on their home finding trip, may experience some difficulty in keeping up the pace from one house visit to the next ensuring that they are sticking to a strict program for the day. The Swedish family on the other hand, will appreciate some room for spontaneous additions to the program, for stopping the visits after half a day because the children are tired.

Hofstede and Bond further identified a difference in Short Term Oriented (STO) and Long Term Oriented (LTO) societies (4). LTO societies will keep up sustained efforts towards slow but certain results, they will keep resources for later, and will try to adapt toward future evolution. Short term oriented (STO) societies, by contrast, need to produce quick results, social pressure will force them to spend now, and personal stability in the present is important. Belgium scores right in the middle of the index (Appendix II), which should enable our staff to understand LTO and STO cultures. Relocators all over the world have witnessed situations where the very LTO Japanese CEO and his family will pick a humble furnished apartment, because it is more important to slowly build up results in his new function, to keep savings for later. The American CFO of that same company, coming from a STO environment, will make sure to spend the entire rental budget that he negotiated, and he will make a quick decision to go for the most prestigious house available on the market for that amount, in conformity to his newly acquired status of Chief Financial Officer.

In line with Hofstede’s research, Trompenaars agrees that the way cultures work with time, is not the same everywhere (7). He finds that cultures differ in the solutions they offer to problems related to time. In certain communities time is a sequence of happenings along a straight line – chronologic culture – and in others time is a cyclic movement – synchronic culture. An example of a chronological, orderly culture is the UK. Not only do English people wait in line for the bus, but even if it starts raining, they will not disrupt the sequence by leaving this line to stay dry in a bus shelter on the other side of the street. To illustrate a synchronic way of acting, there’s the Italian butcher, who’s slicing off half a pound of salami, and asks the other customers in the shop whether anybody else needs salami. It makes sense to continue to cut slices of the same salami, rather than wrapping it up, putting it back in the counter and unwrapping it again for the next customer. Yet, the butcher’s question would never be answered by a “yes please” by a Dutch customer since it is not yet his turn.

Trompenaars’ chronological behavior is named monochromic, and the synchronic handling is called polychromic by Hall (8). He shifts the emphasis of the distinction on the number of activities one can handle at the same time. Think for example of the polychromic Argentinean travel  agent who prepares your plane ticket while talking to a friend over the phone, incidentally making a compliment about the dress of a colleague just walking in. The Belgian customer will be offended by the lack of attention; he was taught that being polite is to first do the ticket, and then call your friend.



A quality driven relocation service requires an understanding of the perception of time of the expatriating employee and his family. But before being able to work with contrasts, the relocation consultant has to be aware of his own cultural programming. The first face-to-face conversation should include a brief description, in clear symbols and comparisons, of the local time values in Belgium. It is important to explain that the differences that divide are merely cultural and not personal. Setting off a relocation procedure on a foot of mutual comprehension for each other’s conceptions or misconceptions of time, will avoid frustration and will enhance the efficiency of the relocator’s work.

On the other hand, no cultural theory can explain all human interaction. As Hall mentions in The Dance of Life (8), though American/European time is monochronic on the surface, it is in a deeper sense both polychronic and monochronic. The monochronic time dominates the official worlds of business, government and sports. However, in the more traditional home in which women are the core around which everything revolves, one finds that polychronic time takes over. How else can one raise several children at once, run a household, hold a job, and be a wife, mother, nurse, tutor, chauffeur, and general fixer-upper, all at the same time?

Piloting people to their new home and life abroad is a task of considerable importance. Therefore, next to a passion for people, sincerity and integrity, the skill of empathy is instrumental in the relocation business. Anticipating different perceptions of time will help us treat the expat families with the patience and respect they deserve.






  1. Hall, Edward T. 1989. The Dance of Life, The Other Dimension of Time. New York: Anchor Books. Page 13.
  2. Hall, Edward T. 1989. The Dance of Life, The Other Dimension of Time. New York: Anchor Books. Page 36, 37.
  3. Hofstede, G. 1980a. Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  4. Hofstede, G. and Hofstede, G.J. 2005. Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind. USA: McGraw-Hill. Page 7.
  5. Discourse is an area of study uniting linguists, psychologists, and other social scientists. For a broad introduction, see van Dijk, T., ed. 1997a. Discourse as structure and process. London: Sage. Van Dijk, T., ed.  1997b. Discourse as social interaction. London: Sage.
  6. Published in an article authored by the Chinese Culture Connection, 1987, the name chosen by Michael Bond for his team of twenty-four researchers.
  7. Trompenaars, F. and Hampden-Turner, C. 2006. Over de Grenzen van Cultuur en Management (Riding the Waves of Culture). Amsterdam/Antwerpen: Business Contact.
  8. Hall, Edward T. 1966. The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday/Anchor Books.
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