Time as a Measurable Substance: What are Chronemics?

Daily life is dictated by time. And time is dictated by daily life.

Both vary across cultures.

You can set your watch by a Swiss train, but to do so in India may very well put you in a different timezone.

Cross-cultural expectations in the workplace are impacted by how cultures conceptualize time.

A breach of expectations in meeting deadlines or appointments can be detrimental to cross-cultural relations, particularly regarding countries that are time-sensitive.

So, how do you even begin to understand another culture’s time expectations?

You start out with the basics.

Concept of Time

Time is a measurable substance. If you think of time in linear terms, it is portioned in intervals, based on activities.

That’s why “time lines” exist.

At any point along the line, one activity has ended, and another has begun.

But not all cultures measure time with the same yardstick.

And the measurements that they use can influence everything from their lifestyles to the speed of their speech.

This is why a firm understanding of a cross-cultural business partner’s measurement of time will allow managers to account for these differences in expectation.

Knowledge of the culture’s time etiquette enables managers to plan accordingly.

For instance, when you make an appointment, understanding the other culture’s expectations about punctuality or tardiness will direct you to behave according to their concept of time – or at least prepare you to allow for their cultural norms without feeling disrespected.

And these norms are largely dictated by whether the culture is polychronic or monochronic.

Chronemics

Chronemics is the study of time’s role in communication – particularly non-verbal communication.

What does chronemics cover?

It evaluates a culture’s:

  • Perception of time
  • Structure of time
  • Time values (i.e. punctuality)
  • Response to time frames (i.e. patience in waiting)

The perception of time, itself, is like a cultural time capsule. Cultural norms in relation to time encapsulate so many aspects of a culture, you can almost sketch out a general idea of their cultural baobab, simply from their concept of time.

Chronemics is divided into two different time systems: monochronic and polychronic. We’ll discuss both at length next week.

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