Linear, Flexible, and Cyclical Time: Analyzing Time in Cross-Cultural Communication

By Sana Reynolds, PhD

Time is money. (American proverb)

Patience is the most beautiful prayer. (Indian proverb)

When God made time, he made plenty of it. (Chinese proverb)

All human beings share time—live in the present, remember the past, and dream of the future—yet cultures view time differently. For example, the United States and Mexico share the same hemisphere and continent, yet they experience and use time in such a different manner that it often causes intense friction between the two countries. The Swiss and German attitudes to time bear little resemblance to attitudes in neighboring Italy, Spain or Portugal. For the British, the future stretches ahead; in Madagascar, because the future is unknowable, it flows into the back of your head from behind (Richard Lewis, When Cultures Collide).

Most studies of time in cross-cultural research follow Edward T. Hall’s analysis in The Silent Language, The Hidden Dimension that divides cultures into two major ways of understanding time: those that view time linearly—monochronic cultures—and those that view time more flexibly—polychronic cultures. Both approaches, albeit in different ways, see time as being controlled by human beings. In other words, both approaches share the belief that human beings can manage and control time.

While working on the book that I co-authored with Deborah Valentine, Guide to Cross-Cultural Communication (published in 2003), I was struck by cultures that seem to disagree with the fundamental concept of human control over time. As Lewis points out, these cultures have another approach to the whole question of time, an approach that posits that it is not the human being that controls time but the cycle of life itself that controls people and human activity. These cultures, which Lewis calls cyclical, hold the position that human beings must live in harmony with nature because they are subservient to cyclical events.

This approach seems to me a richer interpretation of the time/culture dynamic. Let me illustrate this by examining each approach in turn: cultures that follow linear (monochronic) time and perform one major activity at a time; cultures that are flexible (polychronic) and that work on several activities simultaneously; and cultures that view time as cyclical (circular, repetitive) and that allow events to unfold naturally.

Linear time

If you want your dreams to come true, don’t oversleep. (Yiddish proverb)

Stay a while, lose a mile. (Dutch proverb)

Cultures that have a linear concept of time view time as a precious commodity to be used, not wasted. They prefer to concentrate on one thing at a time and work sequentially within a clock-regulated timeframe; this appears to them to be an efficient, impartial, and precise way of organizing life—especially business. Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Scandinavian peoples generally live and work by a linear clock, measure time in small units, value schedules, and focus on the future.

The importance of schedules. In cultures that define time in a linear fashion, schedules are critical because they permit planning and prevent uncertainty. Since these cultures adhere to a cause/effect understanding of events and reality, schedules are considered sacred.

People from linear time cultures make appointments in small segments (15-30 minutes) and dislike lateness, as this disrupts the schedule and impacts all subsequent appointments. They prize punctuality and consider promptness a basic courtesy as well as a proof of commitment. These cultures dislike interruptions and expect complete
concentration on the task at hand; doing two things at once (taking a telephone call during a meeting) is viewed as being inattentive or may even be considered rude.

A focus on the future. People in linear cultures so value time that they study time management to learn to get more done every day—an occupation that’s often considered risible by flexible, multi-tasking, relationship-oriented cultures and impossible by cyclical cultures. Linear cultures’ belief in the future is unshakeable—after all, the future promises greater expertise in controlling time and packing more into each time unit. These cultures also view change positively.

Time measured in small units. Linear-time cultures (the United States, Switzerland, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, and the Scandinavian countries) measure time in relatively short periods: minutes, hours, days; plan for the short term; and report earnings and profits in quarters and years.

  • The languages of linear-time cultures abound in expressions which capture the idea of time as a precious entity:
  • Time is money. Save time. Don’t waste time. Use time wisely. The early bird catches the worm. (United States)
  • He who hesitates is lost. Strike while the iron is hot. Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today. (England)
  • Time is everything. (advertising slogan for Swissair)
  • Uberpunktlich (German expression for being on time, literally, over-punctual)
  • Wasting time is stealing from yourself (Estonian proverb)
  • Rest makes rust. (Dutch proverb)
  • Lose an hour in the morning, chase it all day long. (Yiddish proverb)

Flexible time

Time is the master of those who have no master. (Arabian proverb)

If it’s not your time, you won’t be born and you won’t die. (Corsican proverb)

In contrast to linear cultures, cultures that view time as flexible are reluctant to strictly measure or control it. Southern Europeans, the cultures bordering the Mediterranean, and South American cultures are flexible about time. In fact, the more things they can do at the same time, the happier they are; interruptions are welcome and multi-tasking or clustering is the rule. Although they will pretend to observe schedules in deference to their linear business associates, most Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks, Arabs, and Latinos ignore the passing of time if it means that conversations or human interactions will be left unfinished.

Emphasis on relationships. For flexible time cultures, schedules are less important than human feelings. When people and relationships demand attention or require nurture, time becomes a subjective commodity that can be manipulated or stretched. Meetings will not be rushed or cut short for the sake of an arbitrary schedule. Time is an open-ended resource; communication is not regulated by a clock.

In a recent (12/9/02) New Yorker article about Mira Nair, the director of the film Monsoon Wedding, critic John Lahr described Nair’s ability to multitask and fuse work with family: “Nair turned the final day of shooting into a sort of extended family outing. In addition to orchestrating cast, crew, and a platoon of extras, she was happily entertaining her son Zohran, Lydia Pilcher and her seven-year-old son, and Taraporevala, visiting from Bombay with her two young children. Far from distracting Nair, the swarming confusion seemed to intensify her concentration. ‘Her orientation to relationships is very familial. She doesn’t work one task at a time or on a purely one-to-one basis. She creates groups.’ remarked her husband.”

A focus on the present. People in flexible time cultures tend to focus on the present, rather than the future (linear cultures) or the past (cyclical cultures). It’s not that they don’t value the past, nor believe in the future; it’s just that they tend to live very fully in the present.

A reluctance to measure. Although adept at business, many people in flexible time cultures find the intricate measurement of time or earnings performed by linear time cultures tedious and unnecessary. When pressed, they will comply with the business contingencies imposed on them by their linear business associates, but their hearts may not be in these calculations.

Utterances that capture the subordination of the clock to human reality:

  • The famous “manana” attitude of the Spanish
  • The often repeated “In sha’a Allah” (If God wills) of the Arab
  • The Filipino “bahala na” (accept what comes)
  • The Turkish proverb “What flares up fast extinguishes soon”
  • The Mongolian proverb “Profit always comes with a delay”
  • The Italian proverb “Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves”

Cyclical time

With time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.
(Chinese proverb)

A ripe melon falls by itself. (African proverb)

Man has responsibility, not power, over time. (Native American proverb)

Although in fundamentally different ways, both linear time cultures and flexible, multi-tasking cultures believe they manage and control time; in cyclical time cultures, however, time manages life, and humans must adjust to time. In these cultures, time is neither viewed as linear nor as event/person related, but as cyclical, circular, repetitive. The human being does not control time; the cycle of life controls people and they must live in harmony with nature and subscribe to the cyclical patterns of life. Examples of cyclical time cultures include most Asian, African, and Native American (including the Inuit) cultures.

Tatsuo Yoshida, former director of the Industrial Bank of Japan, vividly captured the disparities between linear time and cyclical time. In an interview reported in Nation’s Business, Yoshida-san stated that the Western business culture is like hunting, whereas in Japan, business is conducted more like rice farming. Japanese business focuses on the long-term; American businesses aim for immediate returns on investment.

Understanding connections. Cultures that subscribe to cyclical time seek to understand linkages and connections. Links show the wholeness of life and allow contrasts or contradictions to exist. Cyclical cultures believe that logic is not linear (cause/effect), nor people-driven, but captures the unity of human experience with the whole of life, nature, and existence.

The Masai, a nomadic culture of Kenya, do not compartmentalize time into minutes and hours but instead schedule time by the rising and setting sun and the feeding of their cattle. The typical Masai day begins just before sunrise, when the cattle go to the river to drink. This period is called “the red blood period” because of the color of the sunrise. The afternoon is “when the shadows lower themselves.” The evening begins when “the cattle return from the river.” Seasons and months are determined by rainfall—a particular month lasts as long as the rains continue and a new month doesn’t begin until the rains have ceased.

Adapted from Neuliep, Intercultural Communication:
A Contextual Approach

Similarly, in Rwanda, time is told by the cycle of rainfall and the rotation of the crops. Their year is divided into 4 seasons: the short dry season of “urugali” (January-February), the heavy rainy season of “itumba” (March-April), the long dry season of “ikiyi” (May-August) and the long rainy season of “umuhindo” (September-December).These 4 seasons are sub-divided into10 months, defined by when various crops are planted and harvested. (Land of a Thousand Hills, Rosamund Halsey Carter).

Making decisions. In cultures that subscribe to a cyclical view of time, business decisions are reached in a very different way. Decisions are not made quickly nor in isolation, purely on their present merits with scant reference to the past; decisions have a contextual background and are made long term. Unlike linear cultures which see time passing without decision or action as “wasted,” cyclical cultures see time coming around in a circle, again and again. The same opportunities will recur or re-present themselves when people are that many days, weeks, or months older and wiser. Many cyclical time cultures will not tackle problems or make decisions immediately in a structured, sequential manner; they will circle round them for a suitable period of reflection, contemplating the possible links between facts and relationships, before committing themselves.

Wise men are never in a hurry. (Chinese proverb)

A proposal without patience breaks its own heart. (Japanese proverb)

To know where you are going, look back to where you’ve come from.
(Arab proverb)

Forging relationships. Although people from cyclical time cultures may have a keen sense of the value of time and respect punctuality, this is dictated by politeness or by form and will have little impact on the actual speed with which business is done. A liberal amount of time will be allotted to the repeated consideration of the details of a transaction and to the careful nurturing of personal relationships. And it is the forging of a relationship that is all-important; business is facilitated by a degree of closeness, a sense of common trust, of connection, of linkage, that informs both the present deal and future transactions.

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it.
We are all interconnected.
(Native American proverb)

Every seed knows its time. You won’t help shoots grow by pulling them higher.
(Japanese proverb)

Focusing on the past. People in cyclical cultures pay a great deal of attention to the past because they believe they can find many links and connections there. Since their focus is on the unity of human experience with the whole of life, planning is very long-term indeed (decades) and earnings per share or per quarter are far less important than the building of equity.

When working on consulting assignments in Hong Kong, I noted that the concept of planning for the short term was quite foreign to the HK business-owners I worked with. I continually heard business plans prefaced with descriptions of ‘my company in the time of my grand-children.’

Expressions that capture this cyclical view of time proliferate in Sino-Tibetan languages:

  • The Chinese say “An inch of time cannot be bought with an inch of gold” and use “wa” (harmony), “han xu” (implicit communication), “gan qing” (a multidimensional set of relational emotions), and “ting” (to listen with ears, eyes and heart)
  • The Koreans value “nunchi” (an affective sense by which they can detect when others are pleased)
Linear Time Flexible Time Cyclical Time
Views time as an entity to be saved, spent, or wasted Views time as fluid and flexible Views time as circular and repetitive
Completes tasks sequentially Works on multiple tasks simultaneously Makes decisions and completes tasks over a long period of contemplation and reflection
Focuses on the task to be completed within a certain time frame Focuses on and nurtures the relationships represented by the tasks Focuses on the long term in tasks and relationships
Separates work from family and social life Views work, family, and social life as one Sees connections and interrelatedness in people and events
Seeks to control time by maintaining a rigid appointment schedule Reacts as the day’s events evolve Believes that life controls time
Focuses on the future Focuses on the present Focuses on the past
Cultures such as Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Scandinavian. Countries such as Great Britain, the United States, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and the Scandinavian countries Southern Europeans, Mediterranean-bordering cultures (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Arabia, Turkey), Mongolia, the Philippines, and South American cultures African cultures, China, Japan, Korea, Native Americans including Inuits


Where does that leave us? How do we communicate or conduct business with people who measure time differently?

Because business demands a certain synchronization of schedules and goals, most cultures will allow the linear-oriented concept of time to dominate to some extent. But your understanding that their underlying beliefs about the “best” use of time are radically different will allow you to communicate with more sensitivity. The following guidelines should help.

When communicating and conducting business in linear cultures:

  • Respect schedules. Be prompt for business appointments and understand that you will have a brief period to make your point. Most businesspeople from linear cultures schedule their days in 15-30 minute increments.
  • Focus on the meeting. Don’t answer your cell phone or perform any other task. Remember that people from linear cultures expect your full attention and interpret multitasking as disrespectful.
  • Target the short term. Linear businesspeople expect data and analysis that address immediate or near-future gains and issues.

When communicating and conducting business in flexible cultures:

  • Depersonalize the issue. Don’t interpret lateness as disrespect of you or lack of commitment to the business goal. Recognize that business objectives may take the back seat to familial or relational concerns.
  • Provide a wider window of time for the appointment. Building flexibility into your schedule will go a long way to reducing common irritation—“I’ll wait in your office from 11:00 to 11:30” or “I’ll be in my hotel room from 9:00 to 10:00 and will wait for your call.”
  • Clarify expectations. It’s becoming increasingly acceptable to ask: “Is that 12:00 American time or Mexican time?” to determine the actual intended start time of a meeting or social event.
  • Avoid strict deadlines whenever possible by adding some wiggle room. State, “The delivery date is between Wednesday and Friday.” or “The contract needs to be finalized by the second quarter of 2003.”

When communicating and conducting business in cyclical cultures:

  • Be punctual. Be on time for your appointment, understanding that lateness is a violation of form and will be interpreted as impolite and disrespectful.
  • Maximize “face” time. Allow time to build a relationship and remember that face-to-face interaction is preferable to electronic or written communication.
  • Be patient. Understand that cyclical cultures process information slowly and should not be hurried. Their logic may not be yours; they look for connections and pay a great deal of attention to atmosphere and intuition
  • Check comfort level. Remember that because many cyclical cultures communicate indirectly, nonverbal behavior may provide much-needed information. Use culturally-sensitive perception statements or questions to check comfort level: “From your tired facial expression, I can see that you need me to slow down. Am I reading you correctly?”

You can reach the author at:
Sana Reynolds, PhD
Consultant: Cross-Cultural & Managerial Communication
184 Columbia Heights
Brooklyn Heights, New York 11201

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