Time Orientation and Culture Assignment
Time is a finite concept; we measure it in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years or by cycles of the moon and tides, the weather, and the movement of planets and stars in t he solar system. Time is also a form of nonverbal communication that is structured formall y and informally by a culture. Chronemics is the study of how a culture structures and uses time, including how individuals perceive, structure, emphasize, and respond to time, as wel l as how they interpret messages about time. Though time is a structured and formalized en tity within and across cultures now, it was not always this way. For example, standard time in the United States did not commence until the spread of railroads as a popular form of hu man transportation in the mid- 1800s made it necessary to establish cultural agreement about exact time. Trains were the f irst method of transportation that could move passengers from place to place in a relatively short amount of time. Unless 2 p.m. was the same time for every station, it would be difficu lt for passengers to arrive at the station on time and board the trains before departure. Issu es such as the importance of punctuality, the timing and duration of business and social visi ts, and the amount of time you should wait for someone who is late all vary from culture to culture. For example, arriving five minutes late for a business appointment in the United St ates would usually require a brief apology, but it may not be even be noticed in another cou ntry. When you communicate with people of different cultures, variations in how you structure a nd use time can cause people to take offense when none was intended. However, time can a lso be used to send intentional messages to another person, and the person who has more p ower or influence in the interaction typically uses it for that purpose. For example, former U.S. President Harry Truman reportedly once kept a newspaper editor waiting for an appoi ntment for more than 45 minutes. Finally, the editor asked the president’s aide to check wit h the president about the long wait. Truman is said to have replied that when he had been a junior senator, the editor had kept him waiting for an hour and a half, so, as far as Truman was concerned, the editor still had “45 minutes to go” (Sowell, 1994). Since Truman was pr esident, and had more power than he did as a junior senator, he chose to and was permitte d to use time in this intentional way. President Truman also intentionally emphasized the p ower distance between himself and the reporter using time as an interpersonal communica tion message. Time can, of course, be used to send a positive message as well— arriving very early for a presentation or submitting a project early can indicate great intere st. Additionally, consider the length of time you may take to text a friend back. While you m ay simply view other activities as more important than texting, this may negatively impact your friend’s perception of you. Research shows that this is indeed true with instructors— students tend to more positively perceive those professors who respond quickly to their e- mails (Tatum, Martin, & Kemper, 2018).
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Though time is a finite concept, it is a form of nonverbal communication that differs across cultures. Chronemics is the study of how cultures structure and use time.
Hall (1959) introduced one important relationship between time and culture when he desc ribed monochronic and polychronic systems of time. In monochronic time system cultures, members prefer to attend to or schedule one task at a time. Time is viewed as a tangible an d valuable item that can be gained or lost, and individuals adhere to formal time, which is r egulated by a clock. Sayings such as “Time is money” and “I’m wasting time” are expression s of a monochronic time system. In the United States, for example, people tend to be punctu al about appointments, to focus on one thing at a time, and to get to the point quickly in con versation, even interrupting others, if necessary, to move the conversation along. Such beha viors reflect an emphasis on concentration, commitment to a task, promptness, and compar tmentalization, which are characteristic of a monochronic time system culture. In contrast, individuals in polychronic time system cultures prefer to focus on and schedule multiple tasks at once. Time, according to this system, is ever changing and flexible and is b ased more on events rather than actual time. For example, Latin American and Mediterrane an countries take much more time to establish a point in a conversation and to establish a r elationship with someone. People in these cultures may carry on more than one conversati on at a time (e.g., managing multiple issues with clients during a meeting or texting your fri end and talking face-to- face with your wife) and often consider it offensive to interrupt others when they are speak ing (Novinger, 2001). Such characteristics reflect a culture’s emphasis on commitment duri ng interactions and interpersonal relationships and on acceptance of interruptions.
Monochronic and polychronic time are not just a product of dominant cultures; there can b e differences between dominant and co- cultures and also between contexts. For example, though the United States as a whole tends to be a monochronic time system culture, residents of regions such as the South and Califor nia have a looser, more polychronic time system. In contrast, those from the Northeast typi cally adhere to a more monochronic time system. In addition, business and organizational c ontexts are more likely to be monochronic, and personal relationship contexts tend more to ward polychronic time (Hall, 1990). You can determine your own temporal orientation usin g Ballard and Seibold’s (2000) scale, provided in the Self-Test feature.