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.

Accepting in Action

There are things about foreign cultures you won’t be able to accept. As we covered last week, behaviors or beliefs that cross a moral or ethical line are the most difficult aspects of a culture to embrace.

That’s where YOU draw the line.

But in order to be successful across cultures, one must integrate as much as possible. To an extent, you must accept the culture as it is. This means you shouldn’t judge the local culture, you should accept ambiguity, you should actively tolerate, and you should explain your monkey moments.

Four Key Steps to Acceptance

  1. Don’t Judge – Be “culture-neutral.” Don’t view differences as good or bad. Viewing a culture as “different” instead of “wrong” will allow you to warm up to their ways. Finding fault in another is often due to fear that you are the one who’s wrong. As Charlyne Blatcher Martin writes for global business protocol, “It is safe to say that our fear or insecurity is often the breeding ground for casting a suspicious eye at ‘the foreigner.’”
  2. Accept Ambiguity – You’ll find that many processes and behaviors of other cultures are ambiguous to you. You must relinquish control and accept this ambiguity. Doing so will allow room for fresh connections to be made. You’ll see that you don’t always have the “right” answer; there are many answers to the same question.
  3. Practice Active Tolerance – To be actively tolerant means to allow for other opinions and points of view, while still standing firmly behind your own. You don’t have to agree, but you should accept that others have differing opinions.
  4. Explain Yourself – Undoubtedly, you’ll make a fool of yourself and have a monkey moment or two during your integration. Instead of hiding behind a tree branch, talk about them with your hosts and explain why your behaviors and views differ from their own.

Accepting Inaction

“The locals are always late! So disrespectful!”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard something along those lines in cultures where time is valued differently than in the Western world.

In some cultures, being late is not a problem. But to Westerners, it’s a waste of time, money, and is a mark of disrespect.

Yelling and berating the locals for their culture valuation of time isn’t acceptance; it’s accepting inaction.

Accepting in Action

Instead of pulling your hair out, someone who is looking to integrate into a culture where the trains don’t run on time must go with the flow.

Relax.

I know many travelers who’ve accepted another culture’s valuation of time but still follow their own internal clock. This is accepting in action. I also know many who’ve adapted to and adopted it, themselves.

We’ll talk about adapting next week.