You're on a business trip to meet with some client. The meeting is delayed. Finally it begins, but then their phone rings and they walk out of the room. They come back, the meeting resumes, but later on someone walks in unexpectedly for some important matter that needs you client's immediate approval. The meeting lasts longer than expected, the conversation continues at the restaurant. What happened? Have you been disrespected? Did the client not value your time? Or have you rather been treated to a full-immersion experience in a polychronic culture?

Let's find out.

Chronemics, according to the definition coined by Professor Emeritus Thomas J. Bruneau of Radford University, is "the study of human tempo as it related to human communication " [1]. In simple terms, chronemics is what defines the way in which we perceive, value, structure time.

In the late 50s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced the concepts of monochronic- and polychronic time, with polychronicism indicating the ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously (cyclical time) and monochronicism a tendency to handle tasks sequentially (linear time). [2] [3] How is a widely different perception of time likely to affect business interactions, considering that monochrons and polychrons manage their time in opposite ways?

The way in which members of different cultures interpret time can lead to several potential issues concerned with people management and process implementation, such as:

- Planning and Organizing

- Attaining time-bound goals (eg daily/weekly targets)

- Evaluating performance under pressure

- Reactions to change

- Tendency to procrastinate

What are some of the main challenges leaders are likely to face in regard to time use in the workplace in culturally diverse environments? How can an organization planning to expand its operations abroad ensure that global projects meet the required standards for a successful implementation?

In his book "When Cultures Collide" [4], linguist and communication consultant Richard Lewis provides an enlightening example of polychronic thinking: "Buses in Madagascar leave not according to a predetermined timetable, but when the bus is full.The situation triggers the event. Not only does this make economic sense, but it is also the time that most passengers have chosen to leave. Consequently, in Madagascar stocks are not replenished until shelves are empty, filling stations order gas only when they run dry, and hordes of would-be passengers at the airport find that, in spite of their tickets, in reality everybody is wait-listed. The actual assignation of seats takes place between the opening of the check-in desk and the (eventual) departure of the plane."

For the Malagasy, "the future is unknowable. It is behind their head where they do not have eyes. Their plans for this unknown area will be far from meticulous, for what can they be based on?"

In polychronic cultures (including - to varying extents and not limited to - most Latin-American, South-European, Middle-Eastern, South-Asian, African countries, all tribal communities around the world) - past and present orientated - time is cyclical, a repetition of natural cycles and patterns. People tend to live for the moment and to do many things at once, careful scheduling is not fundamental (for life is unpredictable and distractions are part of it), previous commitments will be respected if possible,things people are doing are valued over the time-frame in which they are happening, plans can (and will) be altered to fit a situation as it changes.

Members of monochronic cultures (that include - to varying extents and are not limited to - most English and German speaking countries, Scandinavian countries, some polychronic countries in a business related context, e.g. Japan), on the other hand, believe that there is a time and a place for everything: they value orderliness and appropriateness, don't appreciate being interrupted, productivity matters (time is something that must be managed efficiently).

Monochronic cultures move fast and plan for the future, individuals tend to be goal-oriented and focused on the big picture. The future is not entirely unknown, because people see life as a journey they prepare for (eg, they forecast how much money they're going to earn in the next semester)

On average, monochrons are most likely to prefer a planned schedule and to have control over their time, while polychrons are most likely to thrive in jobs that require juggling of tasks and offer a certain degree of variation.



[1] Bruneau, T. (2012). "Chronemics: Time-binding and the construction of personal time. Etc: A Review of General Semantics, 69(1), 72-92. Retrieved from

[2] Hall, E.T. (1959). "The Silent Language", New York: Doubleday

[3] Hall, E.T. (1976). "Beyond Culture", New York: Doubleday

[4] Lewis, R. D. (1996). "When cultures collide: Managing successfully across cultures". London: N. Brealey Pub

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you were to buy any of the books recommended here, I would earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

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