During these past four days in Accra, we have often been asked what we make of Ghana – the culture, people, food, etc. It’s been an exciting and eye opening 4 days. Interestingly, one of the most surprising factors have been the traffic jams during rush hour and the extent to which these influence timeliness – we have experienced this ourselves on most days, so to avoid unnecessary frustrations, I have had to surrender to the traffic and simply go with the flow (and try not to inhale too many fumes!).
Time is an interesting concept, both philosophically speaking and in practice, and it is perhaps one of the first observations one makes when coming to Ghana from a country where time is a precious commodity and can be structured, counted and talked about in numerous verbal expressions. In fact, there is a whole area of study about the use of time and how people value, perceive and structure time – this is called chronemics.
Coming back to the West African context - generally speaking, Ghanaians have a polychronic perception to time. This means that time is seen as fluid, and where many things can be done at once. Polychronic cultures value relationships over tasks, hence interruptions are frequent and expected. From a practical point of view, this explains that people in such cultures answer their mobile phones when they ring during meetings, and that plans are changeable. If one is not aware of such cultural differences, a little bit of culture shock can take place.
This laxed approach to time in the country, is the first thing the diaspora have picked up on as a key difference in business – in fact they often describe the Ghanaian approach to time as Ghana Maybe Time (instead of GMT). When it comes to setting up their own businesses here in Accra, they place emphasis on their ability and dedication to sticking to set deadlines. Needless to say, some locals find this rather ‘new’ and even surprising. Imagine the reverse culture shock experienced by those on their first trip to the UK for example!
Another area where different attitudes to timekeeping influences business interactions can be noticed within the attitude to customer services. For those outside the hotel and tourism industry, there are certain attitudes and behaviours which may be misunderstood by foreign visitors to Ghana. For example, meals are often served 45 mins – 1 hour after the order has been taken. If a client would have to wait for even 30 mins in the UK, one would start worrying as to why that is the case. In fact, clients are often warned if a meal takes over 25 minns to be prepared (e.g. paella in Spain).
Simply put, in many cultures time does not always equal money and one has to firstly engage him/herself in the relationship before being able to reap its fruits. Once the relationship is secured, then other conversations can take place. To avoid frustrations in business, one has to build upon his/her understanding of the culture and especially those values that lie behind the attitudes and behaviours to time. With a little dose of cultural awareness, one can avoid stress and frustrations.