Cross-Cultural Concept of Time: Chronemics

Matthew MacLachlan

15 Feb 2010

The terms polychronic and monochronic are used to describe how we understand and use time as well as how time affects our attitudes, behaviours and communication. In The Silent Language (1959), Edward T. Hall used the term polychronic to describe the preference for doing several things at once. Conversely, monochronic refers to an individual’s preference to do their activities one by one.

People in monochronic cultures such as the U.S. or Germany prefer promptness, careful planning and rigid commitment to plans. They also tend to be task-oriented whereas people from polychronic cultures are people-oriented. Cultures such as Italy or Brazil are considered to be polychronic since they prefer to have multiple things happening at once. Polychronic cultures tend to prioritise relationships over tasks and do not consider time commitments to be binding.

The table below highlights some of the key differences between monochronic and polychronic preferences.

 

MonochronicPolychronic
One thing at a timeMultiple activities at once
Rigid approach to timeFlexible approach to time
Strict agendaNo strict agenda
Focus on taskFocus on relationship
Completion of job most importantRelationships more important than the job
Emphasise promptnessPromptness based on relationships

 

Cross-cultural training will provide you with a more comprehensive understanding of different approaches to time, including your own, and the impact this can have on doing business internationally. Whether intercultural training focuses on one specific culture such as Doing Business in India, or how to be more effective in any global context such as Communicating across Cultures, the concepts monochronic and polychronic are key to improving your ability to build strong relationships with your international colleagues.

While doing business in other countries, you should consider the different perceptions of time people might have. Everyday global business activities such as scheduling meetings, participating in conference calls or planning a project can be affected by attitudes to time.



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