Planning in a culture clash

I am convinced that one of the most frustrating culture-clash experiences are cross-cultural planning experiences. I bet most people have had the chance to plan something together with someone from another culture and have ascertained how the differing concepts of time and negotiation strategies make it impossible to take joint steps together. The divergent worldviews result in mismatched philosophies of prediction of future, deliberately arranged events. A nightmare.

Planning is a quintessential human behavior. True, animals also take purposeful actions and so maybe plan for things to happen. But planning is mental enmeshing – you expect certain things to happen based on your own actions as well as other people’s presumed cooperation. And that’s where it gets tricky.

A friend of mine who is Greek by origin but has been living in Sweden for decades has a hard time planning just the simple get-togethers with her friends and relatives when she visits her homeland every summer. Both oral agreement with friends and formal marking off certain days of the calendars are very difficult to pan out in real meetings. But everything becomes very easy if those get togethers are left to happen on their own, in the last moment even. She believes that planning for people in Greece is stressful as planned events produce the anxiety that something might happen to hamper them while leaving everything to chance reveals a comforting reliance on serendipity, even predetermined destiny, which is supposed to work always. In Sweden, on the other hand, non planning would produce anxiety because it produces too much insecurity of the open possibilities of the future in which humans have little control.

Because it’s really a question of mental organizing of the future and personal control of reality. When people plan, they commit the confidence that their intentions and resulting actions will have a tangible influence on what will actually happen. Do most people trust their influence on reality? Let’s remember the Spanish proverb “El hombre propone, Dios dispone” (“Man proposes, God disposes”). Clearly Spaniards are not convinced in their control of future events but see themselves as initial wishers of reality who need to have a permission for things to happen. Pessimism? Fatalism? I don’t think so – just a different worldview with a God-insurance if things don’t work out.

So planning is a question of empowerment. You can plan something if you see yourself as a person with the power to make it happen. In a traditional society, a person’s life is planned even before birth and deviations cause drama.

But it doesn’t mean non-planning is a bad thing. Actually, it can be great as it gives you a great space for spontaneity. For deciding in the moment. It also provides a great opportunity to give people the assurance they can make time for you in their unlanned schedule. It’s the freedom of the blank sheet in your calendar. It’s a question of mental flexibility when things don’t seem to pan out. It’s allowing for life to flow 🙂


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