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.

The Difference Between Polychronic & Monochronic Time Systems

Sara starts dinner at 6, finishes at 6:30, and washes the dishes at 8. She walks the dog at 8:30 and arranges to run some errands the next morning at 9, while organizing her schedule that evening. She answers emails immediately in the morning and responds to phone calls at a set point in the day, when each of her pre-scheduled tasks has been completed in an orderly fashion.

Sara runs on a monochronic time system.

Shannon washes the dishes while cooking, walks the dog while running errands, loosely arranges her schedule while answering emails, takes phone calls while finishing up her daily tasks. She doesn’t have a set schedule defined by time. She simply has a to-do list, and things will get done as they do.

Shannon runs on a polychronic time system.

Polychronicity

The multi-task culture of a polychromic time system involves undertaking multiple tasks or activities simultaneously.

Instead of working on one individual task at a time, those who prefer a polychronic time system often have several things going at once, and they work towards accomplishing each task fluidly and in their own time.

Polychronicity is preferred in cultures that are not overly concerned about deadlines and precision. Latin American, Arab, African, and South Asian cultures tend toward polychronicity. These cultures also tend to value relationships, traditions, seasonal cycles, and community over the completion of tasks in an orderly fashion.

Monochronicity

As you may have guessed, monochronic cultures are quite the opposite of polychronic cultures.

In monochronic cultures – like those of the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, and Turkey, to name a few – time is divided strictly into specific tasks.

Business schedules are essential, as “time is money.” A manager’s agenda is pre-arranged and precise.

Many other idioms involving time have been coined in such cultures, such as the phrase “killing time,” which means you have time to waste. Or “take your time,” which means there is no deadline. “To work against the clock” suggests you have deadlines to meet and are competing with time to meet them.

These are just a few examples in which the monochronic valuation of time has eked into language.

There are also characteristic differences between the two cultural types.

Characteristic Differences

Shared in the conference paper, “Everything is about time: does it have the same meaning all over the world?” a number of qualities and values between the people of polychromic and monochromic cultures differ. Here are a few:

Polychronic Monochronic
Do multiple things at once Complete one task at a time
Are subject to interruptions and distractions Concentrate on the task at hand
Time commitments are flexible Deadlines and schedules are strict
Are relationship-focused Are job-focused
Often alter plans Are plan-oriented
Consider the relationship when prioritizing time Time priority is emphasized
Build life-long relationships Build short-term relationships

We’ll talk more about why these differences in time perception sprang up between polychronic and monochronic cultures next week.