Correlating Time Orientations and Burnout : Using Inter-Cultural Skills to Combat Societal Problems Print
Written by Corina Mihaela Paraschiv   
Monday, 24 March 2008 16:57

Did you ever notice how your relationship to time determines some of the social problems of your country? In South Africa, in Cape Verde, your most important resource is money. Rich people run after money. In North America, time is your most important asset. Rich people run after time. The attitude towards time is therefore drastically different.

Monochronic and Polychronic Time Orientation

In Cape Verde, the polychronic nature of time is apparent in daily life. People are very laid back and never in a hurry to either serve you or get served. This attitude is very interesting because underlying this are different expectations; the monocrhonic North American confronted to an extended period of wait feels frustration and stress, whereas someone from a polychronic society is not disturbed at all by the wait. The attitude towards life was also very different in Africa and in North America; in Africa, people were keener on seizing the day, because tomorrow was rather uncertain, whereas the entire North American society is projected forward in time. Idiomatic expressions can illustrate this mentality. In Quebec, Canada, a popular saying goes: “On récolte ce qu'on sème”, which can be translated to “we will later reap what we planted today”.


Societal Implications

The different attitudes toward time actually have societal implications. Upon discussing with South Africans, Ghanaians and Cape Verde locals, it has come to my attention that burnouts and depression were a very uncommon phenomenon.  From the North American perspective, burnout is being heavily debated on in terms of causes or triggers.  Some specialists consider burnout to be a particular form of severe depression; some attribute it to external factors such as stressful work; others consider it to be a condition related to internal factors such as type-A personality or neuroticism. 


The interesting thing is that by understanding people’s cultural  relationship to time, we may both link the external and internal factors together in explaining burnouts.  When described what burnout was, the Africans in the countries we have visited were very prompt to highlight how their lifestyles did not fit at all with the conditions necessary for burnout to appear – people experience less stress due to overworking because the notion of time is more flexible, and they are less likely to exhibit type-A personality traits for instance, because their society does not value productivity in the same way that monochromic societies do.


In fact, success in polychronic societies is defined in a different way.  It is not efficiency that matters, and time as we’ve seen is not the main concern.  Rather, polychronic societies seem to place a higher importance on relationships; it will for instance be judged more prioritary to finish a talk with a friend before moving on to another scheduled appointment, rather than cutting the person short to arrive on time to the next appointment.  It seems in fact that polychronic societies have very little use of agenda-times; they prefer real-life, dynamic, flexible time and will be very understanding if you cannot show up on time at a planned event.  Of course, in the business world this cannot be taken as literally, especially with the globalization of norms, although tendencies can still be observed – I for one could see them in the speed with which customers were attended to, or how quickly it took to receive feedback from organizations when planning visits.    This is not to say that stress is inexistent in a polychronic society, but rather that the sources of stress will differ; in one case it will be concern for productivity and lack of time, in the other it will be personal conflicts and problematic relationships.   However, because burnout is said to be experienced following work overload or a type-A personality (a trait exhibited by people who are pressed by time, who are nervous and competitive), and that none of these are realities of a polychronic society, it follows that burnout is not as common a problem.


Solving Real-Life Problems

This would be of no interest if it could not be of some concrete application.   The trip around the world I have been on for the past two months has both given me a better idea of where I stand and of what other views there are in the world on numerous topics.  I have now come to conceptualize the world as a spectrum of more or less intense focuses, and have come to best cope with different values than mine by assuming they had an inherent logic in their own context and culture.  This has enabled me, when surrounded by people from a polychronic background to adapt my expectation, better anticipate their prioritizations and actions, and optimize our interactions by tailoring to their habits regarding time.   The entire experience has had two effects : I have first felt less stressed in situations where the concept of time was treated with much laxism, and I have also eventually genuinely come to view polychronic time as a valid way of organizing time.


Embodied Ethnocentrism

The two perhaps did not come in that order; Milton Benett and Ida Castiglioni speak of a concept called embodied ethnocentrism.  According to them, it is not enough to intellectualize a foreign concept like the polychronic notion of time.  My idea here is to explain how developing heightened inter-cultural abilities can lead individuals in a monochronic-time culture to avoid burnouts, and, making it more general, how the abilities acquired through cross-cultural experiences can help individuals cope better with societal issues that affect them. 


If one knows rationally that a culture has little or no respect for schedules and punctuality, it can equip that individual with a little more patience.  But eventually, when confronted to a longer wait, a feeling of discomfort, of something “not being right” will happen if the wait is long enough.  That is because our intuition is grounded in our home culture.  It is what we call the embodied ethnocentrism.  Now imagine that the same person, after being in the country for a number of years, finally develops a real understanding of the situation.  Then he will not only think it is alright if such a situation happens, but he will also feel it is alright – an intuitive, visceral feeling. 


Perhaps this concept of visceral feeling would be less foreign in a country like Cape Verde – where people are very “physical”.  They dance.  They play sports.  They make love.  The world is processed through an active physical participation.  The Western world has lost most of this awareness for the body and its senses, stressing mostly the intellect, an internalized process.  Yet I believe that by listening carefully to cues of our body, we may truly assess our readiness and mindset shifts when working with ideas and concepts that are new, or strange to us.


Starting in a foreign culture

The first step towards that is having an open mind.  Being convinced, even when faced with behaviours or belief systems that seem incongruent to our view of the world, that the individuals we are engaging with have the same degree of intelligence and common sense than we do.  We can then entertain the idea that, by understanding the cultural context through which a particular point is being viewed, we may also agree to its logic.  A natural tendency is to weight things against each other, to formulate a judgement on reality around us.  Only when we have the curiosity to view someone else’s perspective as an insider, and not as an outsider, can we start seeing the world differently.  The effective inter-cultural communicator will realize it ultimately does not matter “which system is best”, but rather, which system should be adopted temporarily to best fit the situation.  With that attitude, it becomes easy even for a monochronic person to adopt a polychronic behaviour, because he understands that in a polychronic society, insisting on “being efficient and following the schedule” will actually prove to be an inefficient method of accomplishing a task with other.  Rather, using what we know of the partners’ systems can speed things up and give the desired results.  Gradually, and with much practice, the feeling of things being right even if they do not follow a schedule could also be internalized.


Pursuing upon re-entry

Upon coming back to one’s own society, from a trip to Africa back into North America for instance, it is easy to loose this newly acquired shifting ability.  Because we find ourselves in a monochronic society, it is easy to conclude that our previous attitudes and tolerance for delays can only work in the polychronic context.  However, keeping this ability to judge each situation independently and feel comfortable with a non-linear conception of task accomplishment could actually take a burden off.  Of course not all behaviour will be acceptable; one may not storm in late into a meeting, one may not ignore the deadlines for projects and one may not try to speak to five different people in customer service at the same time in a monochronic society.  These behaviours are simply not acceptable.  One may, however, display the same tolerance for delays if someone else is late in a meeting, one may employ the same tactics to motivate someone to finish work when it is needed and one may have more patience with people trying to serve multiple customers at the corner store.  As always : it is best to invest energy to change what we have most power over – in most cases that will be ourselves, rather than others. 



For more info:


·        BENNETT, Milton & CASTIGLIONI, Ida;  EMBODIED ETHNOCENTRISM AND THE FEELING OF CULTURE - A Key to Training for Intercultural Competence


·        Interviews with Capetonians, Ghanaians and Cape Verde locals while in port