“Time isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing”, echoes the sentiment that time, in its intangible essence, is intertwined with our perception of space, guiding our experiences, decisions, and the very fabric of our lives. In this article, we will embark on a journey through the intricate interplay of time and space, exploring how these universal aspects converge with the intricacies of cultural diversity, language, and human existence.


The concept of time is ubiquitous, transcending borders and cultures, whether in America or Japan, Iceland, or South Africa. If I were to inquire about the time from a stranger, raising my left arm and making clockwise gestures with my right index finger, it would be universally understood, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs and origins, be it Muslim or Hindu, Catholic or Protestant, European or African, Asian, or South American. However, what differs profoundly is the understanding of time itself. What I perceive as a European may differ from how an Asian perceives the time at their disposal. Similarly, the interpretation of ‘let’s meet at 9 o’clock’ varies between for example an American and someone from an Arabic culture.

But not only time will be understood completely different if we go from one culture to another as well the notion of space will be defined and lived differently. We can ask the same questions about space. But let us first explore the concept of time.


Nonetheless, Western cultures, including Japan, place significant importance on time, as evidenced by the widely recognized adage ‘Time is money.’ In these cultures, time is considered one of the most valuable commodities, and wasting it is discouraged. Consequently, their approach to planning tends to be rigid and structured, with meticulous adherence to schedules. While this precision is more pronounced in England compared to the United States, it contrasts significantly with Eastern cultures, such as those in the Middle East, where daily schedules are not as meticulously planned, and the emphasis is often on living in the moment rather than constantly preoccupied with future time allocations.

Especially when it comes to interactions between different cultures, such as doing business or meeting in private, this can lead to misunderstandings. Whereas in England it is good manners to be on time, i.e., you have an appointment at 1200, so you meet at 1200, in Brazil this is unimaginable and comparable to going to a party you are not even invited to.

A business man stands grinning and looking at his watch with a clock and some cash visible in the background.
Cartoon image representing the “Time is money” slogan

In the British social etiquette, the importance of maintaining a certain social distance is emphasized. Getting too close to someone can be viewed as impolite or an intrusive invasion of personal space, a perspective that reflects the broader value of individualism prevalent in England and Western societies. This emphasis on personal space can be seen for example in the architectural practice of enclosing gardens with high, thick hedges to shield them from prying eyes, a common sight across Europe.

In contrast, Japan offers a fascinating departure from this Western approach. In Japanese culture, gardens seamlessly blend with the living spaces, creating an impression that the garden is an extension of the house or vice versa. Unlike Western homes, where individual rooms serve specific purposes such as dining, living, and sleeping, Japanese architecture has evolved over centuries to adapt to a single room’s versatility, depending on the time of day and need. The walls in Japanese homes, often made of paper and referred to as “Shoji” or sliding doors, embody the philosophy of fluid space. They allow residents to divide or combine space as needed, promoting a harmonious relationship with nature and a sense of adaptability within the living environment.


But there are much more subtle differences in people’s behavior which often reveal themselves in everyday situations, such as the experience of riding a train. When an American describes a train as “full”, the interpretation of that statement my not fully align with how a Japanese person perceives the same situation. In Japan, trains can be notably more crowded, stemming from differences in the concept of personal space. Japanese individuals tend to approach strangers with greater proximity compared to their American counterparts.

However, it’s essential to acknowledge that these behavioral disparities can also be influenced by geographical factors. Japan’s significantly higher population density, in contrast to the United States, contributes to the heightened congestion experienced on Japanese trains. Thus, the interplay of cultural norms and geographical context becomes a key determinant in shaping such subtle distinctions in behavior.

Nevertheless, let’s return to the intriguing notion of time. Edward Hall, in his seminal work (The Silent Language, published 1959), extensively studied the perception of time and categorized people into two distinct groups: monochronic and polychronic.

Monochronic cultures tend to emphasize “doing one thing at a time” and prioritize a linear approach to tasks, often moving from one task to another. In contrast, polychronic cultures tend to organize and engage in several events simultaneously and place high value on interpersonal relationships. For instance, in the Middle East, people often prioritize “being” over “doing”, savoring the moment they are in. The United States and Europe are commonly perceived as predominantly monochronic cultures, while Japan occupies a middle ground.

Conversely, cultures in regions such as China, the Middle East, Mexico, and Africa are often considered highly polychronic, emphasizing a more fluid and interconnected approach to time.

Monochronic vs Polychronic: Cultural differences explained
World map of monochronic vs. polychronic cultures


On the other hand, when monochronic and polychronic cultures collide together in a business context, it often leads to significant misunderstandings, heightened tensions, and, ultimately, results in a less productive outcome than initially envisioned.

Imagine a meeting between an American businessman and a Brazilian counterpart. If they agreed to meet at 10 am, the American would interpret this as a punctual start to a business-focused discussion, with limited room for private conversations. Coming from an individualistic culture, the American tends to maintain a clear boundary between personal and professional matters, considering private matters as confidential.

In contrast, the Brazilian businessman would interpret the agreement differently. He might arrive around 10:30 am and, as someone from a collectivistic culture, would initiate a warm conversation about personal life and other non-business topics first.

Finally, the American may perceive the Brazilian’s lateness as rude and disrespectful, while the Brazilian counterpart might view the American as overly rigid and excessively focused on his schedule. Additionally, the lack of interest in discussing private topics could be seen by the Brazilian as unfriendly and unapproachable.

In a similar scenario, one could draw parallels between an Englishman in Saudi Arabia, with the Englishman representing the American and the Saudi Arabian embodying the Brazilian. Just as the American might perceive the Brazilian’s lateness as rude and disrespectful, the Saudi Arabian counterpart might view the Englishman as excessively punctual and rigid, potentially missing the warmth of interpersonal connection and considering as well as unapproachable. This dynamic could ultimately lead to misunderstandings, frustration, and potentially derail the meeting, making it challenging to reach any mutually beneficial agreements.


With these cultural nuances in mind, possessing an understanding of these differences can prove invaluable, whether you’re conducting business negotiations or enjoying a social gathering with friends from diverse backgrounds, be they Arabian, American, or from any corner of the globe.

Ein Bild, das Kleidung, Mann, Text, Cartoon enthält.Automatisch generierte Beschreibung
Cartoon drawing about culutral differencies

In conclusion, our perception of time and space serves as a profound lens through which we view the world, profoundly influenced by cultural diversity and individual perspectives. Time, often distilled into monochronic and polychronic categories, reveals how cultures prioritize tasks, relationships, and moments. Similarly, spatial understanding demonstrates the intricate dance between personal boundaries and communal harmony, manifesting in architectural choices and social etiquette.

Yet, these disparities are not roadblocks but rather bridges to deeper connections in our increasingly interconnected world. Understanding the nuances of time and spaces can facilitate smoother cross-cultural interactions, fostering respect for diverse viewpoints. Embracing the tapestry of our shared human experience, we navigate the interplay of time and space with grace and appreciation for the rich fabric of our global community. In the end, our diverse perceptions enrich our collective narrative, weaving together cultures, experiences, and the share human story that transcends boundaries.


Sebastian Hügi
Sebastian Hügi
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SOURCES (cliquez sur les titres pour en savoir plus)

Miles, Davis.

Clockify. The perception of Time in different cultures

Study in the UK. British Culture and Norms

BBC Travel. Why Brazilians are always late

LibreTexts, Social Sciences. 5.3 Time and Space

Japanwelt. Shoji in der traditionellen japanischen Einrichtung

Hank-Seal. The different of Personal Distance between Japan and Western Countries

Project Consult. How different culture perceive time: monochronic vs polychronic

Duranti, G. & Di Prata, O. (2009). Everything is about time: does it have the same meaning all over the world? Paper represented at PMI Global Congress 2009 – EMEA, Amsterdam, North Holland, The Netherlands. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute

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