The contrast between Northern and Southern Europe, or between the US and the Middle East, is most obvious when it comes to concepts of time. In the US and UK, for example, time is a thief slipping through your fingers – it disappears all too
quickly, so you have to control it, constrain it and rigorously plan it. I myself fall victim to this approach when I am in the UK, scheduling my days to the dot, whiteboards and planners on my walls, juggling multiple complex projects and proudly ticking things off my ‘To Do’ list. I even help others to work smarter, faster, better, to prioritise and so on, all the while yearning for a holiday in those places where time does not wield its whip.
In the Mediterranean region, time is regarded as abundant; people tend to follow natural seasonal rhythms. Punctuality is not as important because you savour the moment rather than always moving onto the next thing. Building relationships takes precedence over scheduling, so you will never tell a visitor that you don’t have time for them because you have to rush to your next appointment.
Despite the fact that I have married into a Greek family and that my own Latin culture is similar, it still takes me three days or so to settle into the Greek routine… or lack thereof! As we sit down for what seems another interminable conversation over coffee and cakes, I glance restlessly at my watch, only to be
told: “Relax! Where are you rushing off to? We’ve got plenty
of time …” And the unspoken criticism there is: “You have
lived in the UK for too long.”
All this is fine and I can talk for ages about monochronic vs. polychronic cultures, past vs. future orientation, long-term and short-term planning… but it still doesn’t help when it takes all morning to decide what we are going to do in the afternoon (in the end, we decided to do nothing). Nor does it help explain why drivers in Athens always seem to be in a mad rush to get somewhere and are prepared to risk life and limb as well as police fines simply to move 5 metres ahead.
I just have to laught at the thought of ever conducting time management courses in Greece or in Romania – and yet a large proportion of young people in these countries have lived and worked abroad, or are even now working for foreign businesses. They probably work longer and harder than many others in the UK, even if they don’t like it, even if it doesn’t fit well with their culture. They perceive it as a necessary evil to get ahead and forge a career.
But do we really have to make an ‘either/or’ choice? Is the Anglo-Saxon model so much more effective than the laid-back approach? Is this laid-back mentality to blame for Greece’s current economic difficulties (hint: don’t think so!). Perhaps real effectiveness (as opposed to just efficiency) could be achieved by combining these different approaches to time.
When we are working on a tight deadline and need to complete a major project, we could all do with a single-minded focus and living only in the present. We should always be able to give our kids full attention, even while cooking and checking emails. And every now and then we should quiet down our frenetic activities, give a voice to our inner thoughts and ask ourselves why.
It’s just my second day in Greece and I am still buzzing on my little wheels of illusory efficient superiority… but ask me again in two days’ time and I will be watching the crickets climbing up the grass stalks and spending forever and a night debating all the world’s ills with friends.