Chronemics: monochronic and polychronic cultures

ClockDear All,
Today I would like to discuss two concepts: “monochronic culture” vs “polychronic culture”; both concepts are pertinent to chronemics (see “Types of nonverbal communication” post for the definition). Studying various aspects of interpersonal communication, famous anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1959; 1976) noticed that English has such expressions as “time is money” and “to waste time”. This observation led him to explore how different cultures deal with time. He found that some cultures see time as something concrete and linear, while other cultures see time as something rather relative and cyclic. The former perspective on time was termed by Hall as monochronic and the latter as polychronic.

Thus, a monochronic culture can be defined as a culture that structures various activities based on the notion of time which is believed to be concrete, linear (from A to B), and universal and as such, is expected to be complied with by the other party.

A polychronic culture can be defined as a culture that structures various activities based on interpersonal relationships with people and views time as cyclic (A-B-C-A-B-C…) and relative.

Below are several examples of monochronic and polychronic cultures:
Monochronic cultures:               Polychronic cultures:
Belorussian                                   Chinese
Canadian                                       Egyptian
Danish                                          Filipino
English                                         Indian
Finnish                                         Indonesian
German                                        Mexican
Japanese                                      Pakistani
Korean                                         Saudi Arabic

As can be seen from the examples above, there is no traceable geographical pattern which might link monochronic vs polychronic perspective on time to a particular region of the world since, for example, monochronic cultures can be found both in Europe and Asia. However, western cultures are usually more inclined to be monochronic. It is worth noting that if we explore cultures on large geographical areas (e.g. US culture), we should be aware that both monochronic and polychronic features can be found there, depending on each particular region. For instance, US culture overall can be referred to as monochronic; however, Hawaiian and New Orleans perspective on time has polychronic features.

In interpersonal communication, people in monochronic cultures
– do one thing at a time;
– concentrate on the given task;
– put the job first;
– emphasize speed in achieving results;
– try to avoid borrowing things;
– do not mix work and personal life;
– set up a plan and follow it;
– consider time to be inflexible; they set and try to meet deadlines.

In interpersonal communication, people in polychronic cultures
– do many things at the same time;
– consider various factors in performing a task;
– put the relationships first;
– emphasize harmony in achieving results;
– borrow things easily, if needed;
– do not necessarily separate work and personal life;
– change plans;
– consider time to be flexible; they do not set deadlines.

In conclusion, cultures differ in the way they handle time: some cultures see time as linear and universal (monochronic), while others see time as cyclic and relative. An important source for such perspectives is the language. In English, for instance, time is seen as something concrete and is often valued as much as money, which is reflected in the following expressions: time is money, to waste time, to save time, time to spare, etc. The monochronic-polychronic dichotomy may help us in intercultural communication (e.g. studies, business, tourism, etc.) by explaining what we may expect from the other party. However, it is necessary to be aware that any culture may have subcultures in which individuals do not necessarily behave in the same way. Moreover, with the rapid development of new media and other technologies as well as more possibilities for travelling around the globe, cultures may also change quite rapidly. Therefore, it is important to be critical in applying the monochronic-polychronic framework.

See similar posts on
High- and low-context cultures
Hofstede’s cultural dimensions
SPEAKING model (D. Hymes)

Hall, E. (1976). Beyond culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.
Hall, E. (1959). The silent language. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications.




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