Adapted from “Telling Time in Different Cultures,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Despite the bloody conflicts in the Middle East, people of goodwill from both Arab and Western nations earnestly seek to collaborate in diplomatic and business transactions. An article by Ilai Alon of Tel Aviv University and Jeanne Brett of Northwestern, however, cautions that good intentions alone may not bridge cultural differences. Specifically, they note that conflicting conceptions of time can thwart successful negotiation.
For centuries, the West has operated on “clock time,” mechanically measuring out minutes and hours. By contrast, “event time”—how long it takes to get from one place to another or to complete a task—is traditionally more important in Middle Eastern cultures. At the most fundamental level, Islamic negotiators may have a more sweeping, spiritual sense of time than do secular Westerners. They tend to honor the distant past and have deep faith in a better world to come. Alon and Brett thus recommend that instead of focusing on present alternatives, effective argumentation “is much more likely to rely on precedents, history, metaphors and models.”
They also note that Westerners can become impatient as rituals and idle conversation with negotiators from Middle Eastern cultures drag out the process. From the other side of the table, however, such interactions are essential to trust-building.
General cultural tendencies do not necessarily apply to specific individuals, of course, but it’s wise to recognize that your counterparts may see time very differently than you do.