You mean this Sunday?

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Greeks, Germans and These So-Called Deadlines

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It's easy to lose count of "final" deadlines that have been missed in the last five months of negotiations between Greece and its creditors. The latest is Sunday, when, according to European Council President Donald Tusk, Greece will face "really and truly the final wake-up call." It's possible the Greeks don't believe it is quite that final.

Some of what has gone wrong with the tedious bailout talks can probably be attributed to cultural differences, rather than ideological, technical or even substantive problems. Even though both Greece's former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and his successor, Euclid Tsakalotos, are British-trained, the Greeks have been conducting the negotiations, well, as Greeks -- and that may have amplified their northern European colleagues' exasperation and led to the current impasse. 

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker first appeared nonplussed and then visibly angry when Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras seemed to agree to certain terms behind closed doors, then turned around and declared the conditions "absurd" to the Greek Parliament. "I don't have a personal problem with Alexis Tsipras, quite the contrary," Juncker said. "He was my friend, he is my friend. But friendship, in order to maintain it, has to have some minimum rules." 

The Greeks may be playing by a different set of rules. In 1960, anthropologist Edward T. Hall wrote that Greek culture sees a contract "as a sort of way station on the route to negotiation that will cease only when the work is completed." In other words, what might be considered a firm deal is just a foot in the door, a starting point for further bargaining. 

During the negotiations, the Greeks have caused dismay by promising to send a proposal at a certain time and then failing to follow through. After one such incident last month, Juncker fulminated. “Alexis Tsipras promised that by Thursday evening he would present a second proposal," he said. "Then he said he would present it on Friday. And then he said he would call on Saturday. But I have never received that proposal, so I hope I will receive it soon."

Perhaps he should have sought counsel in a 2012 paper by Oxford University's Renee Hirschon, "Cultural Mismatches: Greek Concepts of Time, Personal Identity, and Authority in the Context of Europe": 

I suggest that what I call a ‘pre-modern’ approach (or a ‘non-Western’ one) to issues of time management continues to prevail in Greece and the reasons for this can be found in the fact that Greece did not follow the path of industrialization of the developed countries of the EU. Specifically regarding time, these features include an elastic and imprecise approach, an attitude of negotiability and flexibility, a mode based on a sense of seasonality and of natural processes, in brief, it is a cyclical modality, not linear and it runs counter to modern western European notions of appropriate time conduct.

She continues:

An associated feature is the way in which fixed deadlines are pushed to the limits. Complaints about running late on a project are countered by the common response that the important thing is to get a job done, and it matters less when it gets done.

Hirschon posits that because most Greeks who are employed in the private sector -- 85 percent, the highest share in the European Union -- work for small and medium enterprises, mostly family-owned companies, they may be less concerned with productivity and tight production schedules. That makes business interactions in Greece more informal than in Germany or the U.K. 

Hirschon says the early interactions between Greece and its "troika" of creditors -- the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- revealed familiar Greek reactions. These include what she calls "verbal non-accountability" and the low weight attributed to promises and threats, and the lack of respect for imposed rules. Her theory is that these "survival tactics" arose as reactions to periods of authoritarian rule, the latest of which occurred under the military junta in 1967-1974.

In an ideal "Europe of solidarity," to which Tsipras keeps referring in his speeches, there would be greater understanding of these cultural patterns. Europe's leaders might get better results from Greece if they concentrated on finding a mutually acceptable result, instead of focusing on the narrow enforcement of deadlines and rules . 

Europe, however, isn't one big happy family. It's an experiment in uniting people with widely diverging business cultures and notions of propriety. Romania, Greece, Spain, Germany and Denmark have different cultures and inhabit different eras in terms of economic development. It's quite likely that a monetary union that unites them all is a pipe dream, at least until the differences erode. 

The EU, however, is broader than the euro zone, and it's not just about money. It's about embracing cultural diversity and patiently evening out development levels. That part of the mission doesn't have to be so rigidly rule-based.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net