Nature’s Timeline: Polychrons and Time Perception

A new factory opened up in Alaska, and several Inuits were hired on to work.

To alert everyone to the workday schedule, a whistle would ring throughout the factory.

When it was time for lunch, the whistle. Before a fifteen-minute break, whistle. When the workday was over, whistle.

By the end of the week, every single Inuit had quit. They could not abide by this angry whistle.

Their culture is not run according to a rigid schedule but rather by the tides. 

The tides are what dictate human activities, particularly harvesting mussels in the ice sheets when the tide is low.

So to the Inuits, time and human activity are determined by nature…not by man and his whistle. 

Last week, we talked about how monochrons value time as something tangible.

But for polychrons, time is valued on a whole different scale.

Polychronic Time

Consider a race track.

Several horses run on the same track at different speeds, each in their own lane.

This is similar to how polychrons view time.

Often, in a polychron’s mind, there are several simultaneous lanes on the same track: different tasks, running at the same time on their own lanes.

One lane has a work agenda, with tasks approximately scheduled.

Another has a personal agenda, with relationships being of equal import as work.

There is a push-and-pull between various mental lanes in a polychron’s timeline track.

Polychrons and Agendas

Polychrons view human relationships and quality time as more important than cost-priority issues.

If you attend a meeting in a country with a polychronic time perception, like Mexico or India, for example, you should not expect the meeting’s agenda to start on time.

Instead, what you should expect is to partake in a long period of socializing before the meeting even starts, usually over tea or coffee. 

This is to build rapport and start off on the right foot.

Before modern industrialization, this is how many European countries perceived time too.  

Running a tight ship, schedule-wise, was not so essential to the bottom line, whereas personal interaction was commonplace and just as important as the agenda.

You can still see this in the cultures of southern European countries, like Italy or Spain.

Polychrons and Deadlines/Appointments

There is no deadline obsession in polychronic cultures. 

Due to not prioritizing deadlines, other scheduled tasks are then delayed as well.

Those who expect something done in polychronic cultures take these delays easier than a monochron might. They are not put off or annoyed by the delays, because they accept this is how things go.

Though a task might go over the scheduled time in a polychronic culture, it will usually be completed…just within its own time.

Appointment times too are an approximation.

Although everyone will be seen, it likely won’t be as per schedule.

Polychron vs. Monochron

Considering these vastly different perceptions of time, you can see why polychronic and monochronic cultures might butt heads when it comes to business matters.

Next week, we’ll talk more about how to bridge the divide.

Time is Present: Why Some Cultures Take an Informal View of Time

When a culture appears to have no concept of time whatsoever, their behavioral patterns might irk those from cultures that do.

To better understand this informal view of time, let’s take a quick look at some of these polychronic cultures.

Pirahã Tribe

When you live in the Amazon, a strict monochronic concept of time is unnecessary.

Enter, the Pirahã tribe.

Frozen in time in the middle of the rainforest, the Pirahã’s concept of time is also seemingly frozen.

Their language and behavioral patterns illustrate their concept of time.

There is no past tense in the Pirahã language. Time is a present concept. The future and the past don’t exist.

The tribe’s concept of time may also contribute to their lack of creation myth or religion.

Cyclical Time

Hinduism, Buddhism, and certain Native American tribes – especially the Hopi tribe of Arizona – view time not as linear but as cyclical.

The Hopi language is absent of verb tenses and, similar to other ancient philosophies, such as those mentioned above, their religious/spiritual concepts highlight a cyclical perception of time.

Buddhism even illustrates cyclical time in the famous “wheel of life,” seen below.

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The West’s Perception of Polychronic Time

When Western countries – or those of monochronic cultures – collaborate with polychronic cultures, they might perceive the polychronic perception of time as rude or inconsiderate. Missing deadlines, running late – these things are unacceptable in monochronic cultures, whereas in polychronic cultures, they’re not uncommon, and they aren’t considered rude or inconsiderate.

Why?

Because relationships are ultimately the most important thing.

Many who live in polychronic cultures try to please everyone, making appointments with numerous people at once, scheduling the impossible.

They know they are not superhuman, and they don’t expect to attend to each appointment at their scheduled time; they simply accept that they’ll arrive in their own time.

In other words, people of polychronic cultures are not ruled by a timetable.

Western cultures might find this concept of time baffling. Western time is precise and strictly divided between tasks, especially in the business world.

Since the Industrial Revolution, monochronic time systems have made workers mechanisms in a machine. If workers don’t arrive on time, then the tasks aren’t completed. If the tasks aren’t completed, then money is lost.

“Time is money.”

With such a view, time has value. So, if you’re wasting someone’s time, you’re essentially wasting their money too.

Next week, we’ll discuss how these perceptions of time impact cultural time orientation.