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Business Across Cultures: Sense of Time

A culture's sense of time is the importance given in that culture to the past, present or future. In a culture that is past-oriented, it is believed that man should look to tradition and precedent as a model for living today. A present-oriented culture believes that the present is everything and you should enjoy today with little concern for tomorrow. Finally, a culture that is future-oriented has a belief that planning and goal-setting make it possible for man to succeed.

Most Western cultures are future-oriented with a very strong belief that organization, planning and goal achievement are the cornerstones of success. This is so important to some cultures that people from other cultures perceive them as being obsessive. For example, Americans are often seen as workaholics, placing the importance of success and goal accomplishment over that of personal relationships.

There is a wide gap between the way that mainstream Indonesian culture and most Western cultures view the sense of time. While Western cultures look to the future, the Indonesian culture is generally past-oriented.

For instance, while most Indonesians have a keen perception of time, it is often focused on the past and includes an interest in heirlooms and a regard for ceremonies, rituals, history, and pedigrees.

Indonesia has a particularly colorful and often glorious past. Three of the major kingdoms in Southeast Asian history had their capitals in what is now Indonesia. Buddhist Sriwijaya, Hindu Majapahit and the great Muslim Sultanate of Mataram still have strong cultural influences on modern Indonesia. All three of these kingdoms held sway over most of what is now present-day Indonesia and some received tribute from as far away as present-day Thailand and Cambodia. When Indonesia gained independence after centuries of colonial domination, it seemed natural that its culture would look to the glories of the past as a guide for the future.

For Western businessmen with a future-oriented viewpoint, the general past orientation of Indonesian culture can present many problems in the workplace. Project completion, production schedules, and deadlines are areas that often bring Western and Indonesian cultures into direct conflict. Indonesian culture demands that time be invested in building relationships, considering ideas, and preparing to act. The concept is that these important actions should not be rushed and that time is required to ensure that everything is done correctly. If that means that a deadline is missed or an order is late, everyone should understand that this was just the amount of time that it took.

If a Western manager has a “time is money” mentality, or has the home office breathing down his neck, or has a line of work that requires precise deadlines and timing, this is extremely frustrating. Failing to meet deadlines is a cardinal sin in Western business culture. It implies incompetence and that alone is often sufficient reason to dismiss an employee.

One of the reasons that this can become such a problem for foreign companies is that meeting deadlines is so basic to their culture that it is a non-negotiable point. Foreign managers may be asked to make many concessions when working in Indonesia, but this is one area where Indonesian personnel should conform to mainstream Western business culture.

Western managers asking Indonesian personnel to meet precise timetables and schedules have to understand that they are asking for something that is difficult for many Indonesians. It may be outside their experience and they may not understand the importance. As a Western manager, you have to be sure that the concept of goal setting and deadlines is explained clearly and often. People need to understand what is expected of them. Too often, Western managers assume that Indonesian personnel have the same business values as themselves-and that is wrong.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.