I find myself in the following situations very frequently here in Latin America:

-          I arrange a face-to-face meeting with a manager to discuss some critical (very critical) issues. He knows it’s important. The conversation starts, he jumps from one thing to the next, I try to stick to a set of questions/issues, he wanders off, then his phone rings, it only takes a minute he says, he answers, makes a quick call, apologises, so back to the lack of sales this year, someone pops in, he wants his annual leave day signed off, then we go back to the conversation, I ask him if we should move to another office to get some peace and quiet, he apologises and says it’s ok, we get nowhere. Then we go for lunch and only then, after discussing the butter quality, the freshness of the lime juice and the waiter’s accent, we get down to discussing what I wanted to bring up. It could have taken an hour, but it’s taken at least three. I had three questions, he probably prepared none. I end up feeling quite dizzy, even after years of training.

-          I ask a business partner for a Skype catch up call. They never get back to me. I insist. No answer. I really need to catch up with them to report to my UK client. I get a reply at 10pm on my WhatsApp saying that 9am the following day is fine. I rearrange my schedule and somehow make it. She’s not there. Her earlier call has run over. It’s 9.50am and she finally calls.

-          On a personal level, things are even worse. It’s very common for friends and relatives to arrange to meet up very last minute (yesterday my son was invited to someone’s house with 15 minutes notice), or to cancel your plans with friends with very little notice and with very poor excuses (this week a school reunion planned in March was cancelled, subsequently put forward for the following weekend and then moved to another date altogether, within hours – last week, I had two meetings with friends cancelled within hours – all the above mean you don’t really plan too much or you’d be stuck with tons of food, stressed partners and anxious children – so it’s a vicious circle)

It can be frustrating but it doesn't have to get to this!

It can be frustrating but it doesn’t have to get to this!

Apparently, a lot of this can be explained by the fact that Latin American culture is polychronic. Check out this definition from World Wide Words:

“Traditionally, cultures are divided into monochronic (where time is regarded as linear, people do one thing at a time and lateness and interruptions are not tolerated) and polychronic (where time is seen as cyclical, punctuality is unimportant and interruptions are acceptable).”

Similarly, from hr.com:

“The way people view time differs from culture to culture, as observed and described by researcher Edward Hall. Monochronic time cultures emphasize schedules, a precise reckoning of time, and promptness. Time is viewed as a discrete commodity. People with this cultural orientation tend to do one thing after another, finishing each activity before starting the next.

On the other hand, in polychronic cultures, people tend to handle multiple things concurrently (or intermittently during a time period) and to emphasize the number of completed transactions and the number of people involved, rather than the adherence to time schedule. Being on time is less important in polychronic cultures than in monochronic cultures.”

If you don’t adapt to this polychronic culture (and some particularly polychronic individuals), life can be tough, stressful and unfruitful in Latin America. You can’t just block them all out and ignore them, or you will do business with no-one and have no friends. I put some limits, but I have to accept that I am a monochronic person in a polychronic culture. Maybe it’s the same for you when you do business here (but I live here!).

Type “polychronic monochronic cultures” on Google and your life will never be the same again. I always knew, intuitively (being an economist and not an anthropologist) that there was something very different about Brits/Canadians/Americans/etc and Latin Americans in the way we organise our businesses, but I could never quite nail it. This dichotomy has definitely helped me understand our differences and now I can smile when my polychronic friends, relatives and colleagues are about to drive me insane. I totally recommend you do the same.

(my favourite articles on this issue appeared on The Articulate CEO and The New York Times, tweeted by @CanadaWise)

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