It's Time

2016-06-13 09:16

Time. Now there’s a loaded word. Swiss or German? It’s a metaphor for efficiency and structure. ‘African Time’? Not so much. Things happen when they happen, we get there when we get there, and it’s all cool.

At first glance, we can appreciate that punctuality is a lot more important to some people than others. In highly task-oriented cultures like much of America and Scandinavia, people like to get on with it. Everyone understands reputations are built on making or missing deadlines. Get the job done in the least amount of time; respect. A "hello, a how-are-you, a mumble about the weather", and it’s off to the races. The French, or Egyptians on the other hand, well they prefer taking a little more time to develop relationships. To linger over lunch before talking shop.

In the West, time is money. Apart from being a tired cliché, it actually is a form of social currency. Ask a person for a meeting, and immediately two obligations arise. 1) Don’t waste their time; and 2) A tacit understanding that you'll reciprocate in future.

But punctuality and other socially appropriate behaviour is learned. By learned I mean, anyone can consciously adapt to local practices from one situation to the next. After all, when in Rome, we do as the Romans do. What’s really interesting is the subconscious attitudes we have to time: specifically, the Past, Present & Future. These unconscious biases influence everything from our success at work to the people we end up socialising with.

In business for example, understanding your target market’s relationship with time is fundamental to success. One area of study in behavioural economics is called Temporal Myopia. Temporal Myopia essentially explains the reason why most people are poor long-term planners. We fail to see the long-term benefits of taking concerted action in the present – retirement planning, climate change etc. It makes complete sense to design experiments to assess the extent that future planning has on present day behaviour.

Think about Household Savings Rates and Consumption. Consumption is marketing’s end goal, so if the average Chinese household saves around 30% of their monthly income*, compared to South Africans, at less than 0% (because they pay off debt, instead of saving)**, one can begin to draw conclusions about general consumption patterns, and subsequent marketing strategies, between the two.

But does this reflect a difference between the way the Chinese place greater emphasis on planning for the future than South Africans do? That is a difficult question to answer, and there is a myriad of factors that contribute to this difference, but it’s reasonable to hypothesize the Chinese tend to view certain things through a longer-term lens than most. Is this necessarily a good thing? Many argue for China’s continued economic growth, too much saving and not enough consumption will only lead to asset price inflation, not real domestic economic activity.

So the question worth asking about attitudes to time are:

1) How does the Past or the Future influence the decisions and behaviour we observe in the Present?

2) Which is relatively more important to the individuals in a given cultural community?

Americans tend to emphasise the future, and the very recent past. The American Dream, and last Quarter’s results, are strong, shared assumptions in US society. On the other hand, some cultures place far more value on the past. Tradition is more of an important influence, while social norms such as deference to age, rather than recent achievement, reflect an appreciation for the lived experience, the past.

And research indicates a range of behaviours can reflect social attitudes to time. Take littering for instance. Spoiling the environment in which you live, hardly reflects a concern for the future. And who knows how we are going to tackle climate change as a species, when the potential destruction unfolds over decades?

When we consider how behaviour in the present is influenced by our personal emphasis and meaning of both the past and the future, we start to see distinct patterns between groups of people. On national and cultural levels, our relationship with time is a distinct product of the environments we grew up in. The oft used phrase, “Why can’t we just all just move on?”, is often a reminder of how differently we weigh up the past vs. the future in making sense of what action to take in the present. And it is a major issue in the politics of this country.

Returning to business, management theory essentially concerns itself with two things:

1. Getting customers to buy more of our stuff, &

2. Getting the most out of the people that work for us, so that customers end up buying more of our stuff.

So shaping a marketing messages that speaks to our emotional connection with the past or future makes obvious sense. Most companies seek to build brand loyalty and repeat customers – something that tends to be easier in more ‘conservative’ markets. Buying a Toyota Corolla is safe, probably a little boring, and you won’t get too many people turning their heads. Yet in 2015 over 1.3m people turned their keys in the ignition for the first time***. And you can bet almost all them fired up first time, every time? That’s a strong brand, built up by proof of value over time – the past looms large in the decision making process of a lot of people who buy Corollas. It's worked well in the past, so why change it?

Would Toyotas sell well in Silicon Valley though? I mean if there’s one place on earth that is innovative; where ideas have power; that’s build on a vision of the future. It’s Silicon Valley. I don’t know, I don’t have the data, so I am left to hypothesize: Innovation and the knowledge economy flourishes in an environment in which the potential and the promise of the future dominates decisions and attitudes in the present. That, and a healthy tolerance for risk.

As for that that other current corporate flavour of the month – Disruption – if that doesn’t imply contempt for the past and doing things the same old way, what does? And why do some cultures embrace disruption more readily than others that are far more instinctively resistant to change? Is this merely a lower tolerance for uncertainty or a stronger connection to the past? Or both?

The management of people requires increasingly culturally intelligent leaders. How many ‘change agents’ and ‘organisational development specialists’ even consider the underlying cultural propensity for change and uncertainty? Not enough.

Take promotion. This has two very distinct time-related consequences for the person being promoted. Firstly, a person’s time horizon invariable lengthens. A manager’s time frame is different from an operator’s time frame – they need to have the time appreciation skills to manage their attention over a longer period. It’s more project management, less task-at-hand-management. Secondly, they need to think of several things at once, what cultural theorists refer to as a Polychronic orientation, as opposed to a sequential, singularly focused Monochronic approach. Time (!) and again, newly promoted managers often really struggle in the beginning ‘to get organised’, and their orientation to time needs to change for continued success.

So too is time used to convey power and authority. A manager can call a meeting at just about anytime they want, employees need to make appointments. A manager can keep a meeting going well over time, something a subordinate wouldn’t do. And something that differs widely from one market to the next. Knowing when to cut a client short when you are running over time can be a key skill for a salesperson. A client from Ukraine once told me that before a meeting, a senior manager would almost always make you wait about 10 minutes, before inviting you into their office. A not-so-subtle display of workplace power – and depending on the social conventions with respect to authority, these vary widely from organisation to organisation, from country to country.

In closing, time isn’t as universal a construct as it would first appear. By this I mean it is perceived differently by different people. And while it creates structure and relativity, it is hugely symbolic. Like space, when it is violated or appealed to, it can evoke a strong emotional response. That’s marketing gold.

So while the finite nature of time itself frightens us – for instance spending 1 hour a day with a child gives us only 6,575 hours from the time they are born until their 18th birthday – it’s the Quality that counts, not quantity.


1. Bloomberg. (2015). The Chinese Can’t Kick Their Savings Habit.

2. Fin24. (2015). South Africans among the World’s Worst Savers.

3. Statista. (2016). Best-Selling Car and Light Truck Models Worldwide in 2015.


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