A friend called me last week and asked, why is it impossible to set up a meeting with Russians far in advance and be sure that the meeting takes place as agreed. He also asked why there is always a need to re-confirm a meeting an evening before. I thought that it has something to do with how Russians perceive time and it is a great topic to investigate.
I have found a lot of answers in a fantastic book “What Mean?: Where Russians Go Wrong in English” by Lynn Visson, read other articles on the topic and added my personal observations. Here is how Russians perceive time and how our perceptions are reflected in the language:
Time is Fluid in Russia
Profile of Time, Dali. Nobody presented fluid time better than Dali in his paintings and sculptures
As Lynn Visson writes, the concept of time in Russia is much more elastic and fluid than in the U.S. There are several reasons for that.
The famous American anthropologist Edward Hall described cultures as monochronic or fixed time and polychronic or fluid time. US, UK and most European cultures are monochronic – in these cultures time is perceived as a frame for behavior, deadlines are respected and punctuality is an important trait.
Russian culture (as well as Latin American and some Mediterranean cultures) is polychronic, which means that people like to have flexible plans and value long-tem relationships. Change of plans often comes with a request from a relative or a friend to do something for him or her. Requests from friends or relatives are more important than business agreements.
However, Russians do not like to plan far in advance even meetings with friends. The only exception is New Year vacation plans with friends and only because people know that waiting until last-minute may lead to no tickets or high prices. If you call a friend and offer to meet tomorrow or the day after tomorrow – high chances that they will find time to meet with you. But try calling a friend and offering to meet 2 weeks from now – he or she will say “Sure!”, but may postpone the meeting last-minute, although they will usually tell you why. That last part is interesting in itself. It is considered not polite to just say “I would not be able to meet with you tomorrow, because I already have other plans”. A Russian person will give a detailed explanation, why he or she cannot meet – she has to take a child to the doctor or her boss told her to stay late in the office to finish a project or he must collect a relative from the airport. There is a cultural need to justify why your plans have changed. However in general planning a meeting with a friend or even a business meeting 2-3 weeks in advance is very uncommon. How can I know what I will be doing on that day 3 weeks from now?
The reason why we do not plan far in future is related to our fatalistic view of the world. We have a saying “A person plans, but God has other plans for him”. We believe that our future depends on many external factors, which are beyond our control. People do not like to make long-term plans, because “a bad eye” could interfere and cancel those plans. Another popular Russian saying is “Devil sits on your right shoulder and does not sleep”. That means – do not reveal your plans and ambitions, be modest, wait until the time comes and then your plans may come true. Russians are superstitious!
Finally – we just do not have a habit to use planners – either in a digital or in a paper form. People, who work in multinational companies do have outlook calendars for business meetings, but even they usually do not add hairdressers appointments or lunches with friends to the calendar. Most Russians just have the calendar of the current week in their heads and “save the date” concept is unknown. And human brain is not a computer, so confirming a meeting a night before is useful.
Do you remember the time when phones looked like that? And you had to be at home to make or receive a call?
We often say “we will call each other” (“созвонимся”). Usually that is to re-confirm the meeting. “We will call each other” is a concept that foreigners do not understand. For foreigners it is not clear, who is supposed to call whom and when. However in Russia it is very uncommon to set up a specific time for a call (unless a person works in a multinational company and sets up a conference call with a colleague from abroad). Usually a person will just say – “Sure, call me tomorrow”. You are supposed to call and ask if that is a right time to speak. Most often a person will talk to you even if she has guests in the house or the conversation is not convenient for him for some other reason. A lot of Russians will not answer the phone if they really cannot talk (are at a meeting) rather than answer the phone and tell you they are busy. There is also no direct Russian equivalent for the phrase “I’ll get back to you”. Recently people, working in multinational companies started saying “я вернусь к вам», which sounds really weird, more like “I’ll be back to you”.
What are the benefits of being polychronic? Polychronic cultures are more natural with multitasking. For example, you can ask a busy salesperson in a store a question while she is busy with another customer. In Russia – a salesperson will always reply and will not be annoyed. In most European countries doing that would be a nuisance for a salesperson.
Punctuality in Russia
Punctuality is not the strongest side of Russians
For monochronic cultures, time is sacred, being late is considered rude and deadlines are fixed. In polychronic cultures the man is more important than time and deadlines are flexible. Being late is perceived as abusive in American culture and is not a “sin” in Russian culture. Edward Hall wrote that “if people are late for meetings it may be because they are polychronic, not because they are disrespectful or lazy”.
It is very uncommon to meet at 6:45, unless it is a meeting at a theater and the play starts at 7 pm. In all other cases it would be a round number or a half-past. To some extent that is understandable – Moscow is a huge city and traffic is terrible, so it may be not possible to calculate the exact time for your commute.
Some more observations. We do not have am and pm in Russian language. The day is not divided by noon. Usually the day is divided in either two chunks – before and after lunch (and typically lunch is from 1 pm to 2 pm). Or the day is divided in 4 chunks: morning (any time before noon), day time – all the time when it is a natural light outside, evening – 6 pm – 11pm, and night – after 11pm-midnight. Since we do not use am and pm, we use military time a lot. So, when texting a friend we may write either “let’s meet at 18:00” or “let’s meet at 6 in the evening”. Any Russian is comfortable with military time.
When it comes to dates – it is culturally acceptable for a woman to be late. Russian men acknowledge the hard work woman puts in getting ready to go out. If it is a date, woman is even expected to be late, “that will give the admirer some time to think about her”. To say more – a Russian girl would feel very uncomfortable if she arrives to a date earlier than her admirer.
If you are having a dinner party in Moscow – be prepared that most of your guests might be half an hour or even an hour late. In the US if you are invited to a dinner at 7 pm, you are expected to be there at 7:15-7:30 the latest. In Russia you are not expected to arrive earlier than 7:15, 7:30-8 pm is a norm, any time after 8pm will be considered late unless you have a good excuse. It is actually considered impolite to arrive 10 min earlier than the time or even at the exact time. The hosts may be not ready yet. And very often, when you arrive to a Russian house, the hosts will still be cooking dinner for an hour or more from the time they specified in their invitation. For them time is also fluid. They planned to have everything ready by 7 pm, but did not calculate time correctly and still have some cooking to do.
I have noticed how different cultures treat time when I studied abroad and had classmates from all over the world. We lived in the same building in Chicago and had a nice lounge at the roof for our parties. If a party was conducted by our American, European or Japanese friends – everything was ready by the time in invitation, if it was a Russian party – hosts would probably be there on time, but preparations would still be in process. If it was an Argentinian party – you could show up an hour later and the hosts may still not be there (although later they would totally make up for that with the great food and fun atmosphere)
A Sense of Urgency
A sense of urgency is another variable, related to time. Lynn Visson writes about a different meaning of a “minute” in the US and in Russia. In Russia in a minute means “soon”, in 10-15 minutes, in the US it usually literally mean “in a minute”. Maria Lebedko writes in her article “Time Perception across Russian and American Cultures”, that Russians often answer the question “When am I supposed to do this?” with the word “Yesterday”, meaning that the task in question is very urgent.
But in general nothing is super urgent in our world. And deadlines are treated as “soft deadlines”. Most people try to meet deadlines, but if the external forces prevent that, shifting deadlines is considered ok.
I wonder if that starts when people are doing their undergrad. Russian students always spend nights before exams studying. Of course students all over the world do procrastinate, but in Russia the entire education system is built so that it encourages procrastination. You do not have many (hardly any) deliverables during the semester, you are supposed to be a responsible adult, absorb the knowledge and do your homework and study on your own. And then – boom!!! Final grade 100% depends on the result of your exam. So exam session twice a year turns into long sleepless nights. Similar attitude later applies to the work projects.
Cost of Time in Russia
Time is money
My American friends would be really surprised to know that Russians have no idea how much they make in one hour. We just never think about that. Unless we are paid per hour, which is rather uncommon, we never divide our salary by the number of work hours. We also do not have a minimum per hour wage in Russia. We have a minimum per month salary. Maybe because of that we rarely think in terms “time is money”.
When we consider hiring a cleaning lady, we usually make a decision based on how much we hate cleaning and other household chores and how that weights against an inconvenience of having a stranger in the house, rather than the difference between a cleaning lady salary and our salary (and that if she does the cleaning, we would be able to work during these hours and make more money).
Status and Time
We have a popular saying “boss is never late, his arrival is delayed” (not exact translation, but close). In Russia subordinates are always expected to be on time, but boss is on his/her own schedule. And bosses often use and abuse that and show up late to work or not show up to work at all. That reflects their status.
I wonder if expensive watches are status symbols because of the same logic. Most Russian businessmen and government officials have exorbitantly expensive watches. If you followed the news recently, you might have read about the $600K watch of Putin’s press secretary. You are a boss, you can afford a really expensive watch AND be the master of your time.
If you are working with Russians – try to break a project is several deliverables with defined deadlines to make sure that the project is done on time. If you have plans with your Russian friends – the easiest thing to do is to plan meetings for the current week. And if you plan far in advance, call us the day before to re-confim the meeting. Knowing about the cultural differences of the perception of time may not lift the frustration, but at least would explain your counterparts behavior.
Please share with me and my readers how you perceive time! Is it linear or cyclic? Do you think more about the past or the future? Do you ever imagine a year as a circle? And if you do – is summer or winter on top of that circle? And, finally – read Einstein’s dreams – an amazing collection of fictional stories about time by Alan Lightman. Imagine what the world would be like if time was still or went backwards or was a spiral with this book.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.