The Cultural Perils of Clockwatching

Originally published by Harvard Business Review, January 2014

Although I have researched cultural differences for many years, it is only recently that I have come to see how my American obsession with punctuality and clockwatching can sometimes lead me astray. The truth is, time may be of prime importance in some cultures, but in others it is firmly subordinated to the needs of the moment.

Let me share two experiences I had that brought this truth home to me.

I was to give a keynote speech in Denver, Colorado, to a group of approximately 500, mostly American, managers. The afternoon before the event, Danielle, the conference organizer, had shown me a stack of cards she would be holding in her lap during my 40-minute talk. “I’ll hold up a sign every ten minutes,” she explained, showing me cards that read “30 minutes,” “20 minutes,” and “10 minutes” in bold black characters. The sequence concluded with “5 minutes,” “2 minutes,” and “0 minutes.” It was evident that the big black zero on the final card meant in no uncertain terms that my time was up.

I understood Danielle perfectly. She is a typical member of my (American) tribe, and I was very comfortable with the idea of monitoring each minute. My speech went beautifully and my American audience was suitably appreciative.

A few days later I was dining with Flavio Ranato in a restaurant overlooking Brazil’s fifth-largest city, Belo Horizonte. We were planning the presentation I would give the next day to a large group of South Americans. “This topic is very important to our organization,” he told me. “The participants will love it. Please feel free to take extra time if you like.”

I didn’t quite understand, as I had already tested my presentation with the I.T. support person, and the agenda was already printed. “I have 45 minutes scheduled. Could I possibly take an hour?” I wondered out loud.

Ranato responded with a shrug: “Of course, take the time you need.”

Uncomfortable, I decided that my talk should last 60 minutes, not 45. I went back to my hotel room and adapted my presentation accordingly.

The next day at the conference, I noticed immediately that the agenda on the door still said I had 45 minutes. So I sought out Ranato in the crowd. “I just want to make sure I understood correctly,” I said. “Did you want me to take 45 or 60 minutes?”

Ranato just laughed. “Do not worry, Erin,” he reassured me. “They will love it. Please take whatever time you need.”

“I will take 60 minutes,” I replied.

When my presentation began (after a number of unanticipated delays), the audience was boisterously appreciative. During the Q&A session at the end they waved their arms to ask questions and provide examples. Carefully watching the large clock at the back of the room, I ended after 65 minutes.

Ranato approached me. “It was great, just as I expected. But you ended so early!”

Early? I didn’t get it.

“You should have gone on longer! They were loving it!” he insisted.

Later that evening, Ranato and I had an enlightening discussion about our mutual incomprehension.

“You gave me 60 minutes. To me, it would be disrespectful if I took more time than scheduled without getting explicit permission,” I explained.

“But we are the customers,” Ranato responded. “We are paying you to be here. If you see that we have more questions, isn’t it simply good service to extend the presentation?”

I was confused. “But if you haven’t explicitly told me, how do I know that’s what you want?”

He looked at me curiously, as it started to dawn on him how much of a foreigner I was. “They were so obviously interested. Couldn’t you tell?”

The impact of differing attitudes toward time can be enormous. The assumptions Ranato and I made about scheduling caused us to have completely contrasting definitions of “good customer service.”

No matter what country you come from, you want to keep your customers happy. Understanding how your international clients think about time — and adjusting your expectations accordingly — is critical to doing that successfully.  And while people in every culture want you to be both structured AND flexible, in some cultures — such as the German, Dutch, British, Danish, Australian, and my own American cultures — we tend to value structure over flexibility. But in many of the world’s fastest growing countries, such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Russia and Nigeria, there is much more emphasis put on being flexible than on being structured.  In these cultures strongly emphasizing punctuality signals an inability to adapt and even a lack of priorities.

So from now on when I give a presentation in one of these, I give myself a good talking to before I arrive.   “Adaptability over punctuality” I remind myself.  I try to ignore the clock and focus on giving whatever the client seems to want at that moment, no matter what we agreed on beforehand.