When delegates from 150 countries recently converged in Frankfurt, Germany for the IMEX 2010 exhibition, cultural differences were discussed, embraced and congratulated. But one theme seemed to be common among the host of international planners: a challenge to adapt to different concepts of time depending on the host country and cultural blend of the delegates. For example, for events in Latin America and Mexico, one planner adds “hora Ingles” to his agendas, which translates to “English time,” and is meant to persuade the delegates to be on time for the meeting. But when he arrived to speak at his 8 a.m. presentation, there was only one person in the room. Five minutes before the end of his presentation an attendee arrived and asked, “has the presentation started yet?” Somehow, the on-time message did not get across.
Another planner referenced Swiss time with an example of a train leaving for Zurich. A delegate stood at the door of the train and asked the conductor, “Is this the train to Zurich?” ready to step inside as soon as he had affirmation. “Yes,” the conductor said, then immediately blew the whistle, shut the doors and left the delegate standing there on the platform. With Swiss time, there is no waiting. You are either on time or you miss the train.
I had a similar experience at IMEX. Along with two Italian delegates, we hurried to the conference shuttle that was only 10 steps away. The Italian delegates plea of “uno momento” (wait a moment) was ignored by the German shuttle driver. Much like the Swiss conductor, the driver shut the doors and departed. An American delegate said, “I can’t believe he just left us.” The Italian responded, “Ah, the Italians, we wait but this is Germany.” She thought some more and said, “They think it’s [impolite] to keep the others on the bus waiting.” We all agreed that the shuttle would forever be delayed by attendees who wanted just one more moment. In this culture, the time is now, not in one minute.
And, then there’s the Slovenian culture where time is meant to be kept, but also meant to be spent in quality. This culture follows the Greek concept of time: Chronos and Kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time in-between or a moment of undetermined time, in which something special can happen. While conducting business, they are always on time — the quantitative Chronos approach. But in a social setting with friends and family, they are concerned with the essence of time — its qualitative importance, or Kairos.
As planners, we also should consider this approach to time. Yes, it’s important to adhere to time-driven agendas to organize successful events, but it’s just as important to be flexible, allowing for the possibility of the undetermined moment — that slice of time when something special can occur.