Some Time and Work Differences Around the World: How it Affects Negotiations

There are twenty-four time zones in the world, four of which fall in the continental United States.  Anyone who has lived in Los Angeles and played phone tag with businesses in New York knows how difficult it is to deal with just four time zones.

Most of us office types work from nine to five.  By the time we in California get to work at nine, our counterparts in New York are going to lunch.  When they go home at five, it’s only two in Los Angeles.  Our communication window is only two hours.  Less if they take breaks during the day.

We live in a global economy.  Americans do business with people in China, Pakistan, Greece and Great Britain.  Germans do business with Russians across six time zones.  Italian cloth is sold in Singapore and Beverly Hills.  Can you imagine all of the telephone tag that’s going on as people negotiate with each other over 24 time zones?

It’s even worse than that.  Lunch starts in Spain at three, in Germany at one and in Norway at eleven.  The Norwegians start work at eight, the Swiss at seven, the British and Turks at nine thirty, the French at seven or eight.  The Germans go home at four, the British at five thirty and the Italians at two-but they work on Saturday.

When we add cultural work day differences to the different time zones, we have the makings of a communications nightmare.  New technology will help, but not enough.

What can be done?  We can incorporate email, Internet and videophone systems into our work stations.  We train our people to waste less time.  We can go on the metric system and promote international work standards.  We can try to develop an international commercial code to settle disputes.

None of these improvements will be easy.  For a long time we will have to continue to do business as we are already doing it.  The likelihood of mistakes, omissions, misunderstandings and misinterpretations in international bargaining will surely increase until we get a better handle on time and work differences.

Time is money. Few people are more aware of this than Americans.  They rush from here to there making the most of the time they have.  But there is a problem.  In negotiation the expression “time is money” means something else.  It means that the more time you give to a negotiation, the better both parties are likely to do, and the better you will do.

When Americans go into a bargaining situation, they want quick results.  Other cultures take lots more time.  They seem to know better than we do what “time is money” really means as it relates to the negotiating process. They know it means taking the time to get the story and making a both-win deal.

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