Although Keita Kadowki, director of sales and marketing at the New Otani Hotels, was exactly on time for his appointment in New York City, he was still concerned. “In Japan, you must be at least five minutes early for an appointment,” he explained, “or you appear ill-mannered.” Being early ensures that everyone will be comfortable and the meeting can begin promptly.
In Japan, Germany and the United States, we have a lot in common when it comes to how we manage time. But while you may run your day like a Swiss watch in your own country, time does not necessarily equate to money in many parts of Latin America, Africa or the Middle East.
Why is being late acceptable in some cultures? Isn’t 60 seconds the same everywhere? Actually, physicists and anthropologists both agree: No, it isn’t.
Time is relative, and perceptions of time vary widely. The cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall considered some cultures “monochronic” (where time is closely managed and schedules flow in an orderly manner) and others, “polychronic” (where relationships and personal priorities determine when things are done).
Different time zones, workweeks, and official holidays only add to the complexities. To help us monochronics appreciate different viewpoints on time and agendas, here are some characteristics of two primarily polychronic cultures: Saudi Arabia and Brazil.
Punctuality and Appointments: As a foreigner, you are expected to be prompt in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, punctuality is not a traditional virtue for Saudis themselves. Never take umbrage at delays, because many Arabs already consider Westerners to be “slaves to the clock.” Your Arabic counterpart may be late, or sometimes might not even show up at all.
In order to establish trust, your initial meeting may be spent entirely on small talk (your journey, your health, etc.). By the end of the meeting, a promising sign would be to obtain your prospect’s cell phone number, because texting is a far more common form of communicating with trusted associates than e-mails.
Prayers: Remember, Mecca is actually in Saudi Arabia, and the whole Islamic world turns in that direction to pray five times a day during: Fajr (dawn), Dhuhr (midday), Asr (afternoon), Maghrib (sunset) and Isha (evening).
If you are going to meet with observant Muslims in any country worldwide, plan your agendas around prayer times, and never step in between a worshipping Muslim and the direction of Mecca. The exact times of each prayer, the direction of Mecca and holiday information are available on smartphone apps and web sites like www.islamicfinder.org
Workweek: The workweek is Saturday through Wednesday, because Friday is the Islamic holy day, and no business is conducted. Most people do not work Thursdays either, but firms may be open a half day. (Workweeks vary across the Muslim world.)
The Islamic calendar, called the Hijri, uses lunar months of 29 or 30 days, so contracts and documents should carry two sets of dates: the Western-designated C.E. (for Common Era) and the Islamic date, designated A. H., or H.
Considering the various workweeks, holidays and perceptions of time in different Islamic countries, it is always wise to confirm your appointments before you go.
Punctuality and Appointments: In northern Brazil, Cariocas (people from Rio) may be more relaxed and less punctual than people from the south, particularly Paulistas (people from São Paulo). As a visitor, you should arrive promptly, but your Brazilian counterpart may be 15 minutes to an hour late. Never express irritation about a delay, and never overbook your schedule. Two appointments a day is a reasonable agenda in Rio.
A physically present person has priority in Brazil. Being there takes time, but it gives you the opportunity to get that solid relationship – which is the primary way business gets done.
Workweek: Monday through Friday, but business hours vary. People from São Paolo often start earlier, have shorter lunches, and may discuss work after hours at restaurants and clubs. On Fridays, happy hours tend to lure people out of the office early. A good Brazilian bar will not close until the last client leaves.
Finally, if you want your appointments to run like clockwork in Rio or Riyadh, avoid doing business around holidays. Set aside your Rolex during Carnival, and pretend you’re a Carioca, too. Samba!
Terri Morrison is a Speaker and co-author of nine books, including Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries, and her new book, Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: Sales & Marketing. She is president of Getting Through Customs, developers of Kiss Bow or Shake Hands Digital – available through McGraw-Hill Digital. Twitter @KissBowAuthor. Telephone (610) 725-1040.