4 Types of Cultural Time Orientation & Time Perception

The ways in which individuals in a culture work and how they view time frames are dictated by whether a culture runs according to a polychronic time system or a monochronic time system.

We talked last week about cultures with informal concepts of time, including cultures that view time as exclusively present (not past or future) and those who view time as cyclical.

How is this time-orientation learned? Let’s take a look.

Values & Norms

Just as values and norms are a culture’s learned behaviors, so is time perception.

Time perception is based on a society’s values. As we mentioned in an earlier post, those from monochronic cultures value relationships above all else. So, if they miss a deadline in lieu of putting time into a family matter, it’s a nonissue.

So, just as children learn values – such as the importance of family – during their primary socialization, so they are oriented toward a specific time cognitivism based on those values.

Time Orientation

There are four different types of time orientation.

These are:

  • Past – the past and the present are interchangeable in past-oriented cultures. They often do not fully grasp elapsed time.
  • Time-line – this type of time cognitivity is a detail-oriented linear concept of time. However, time-line cognitivity does not lend itself to multitasking.
  • Present – you might think of a thrill-seeker when you think of present-oriented cognitivity. These are low-risk aversion cultures.
  • Future – the goal-setting, forward-thinking cultures are future-oriented. Those with future-oriented cognitivity look at the bigger picture and follow their plans through to achieve that picture.

What is affected by time orientation?

Communication, particularly the content of what’s being communicated, as well as the urgency and frequency of communication.

Who Belongs Where

Older countries with centuries of history, such as India and China, are generally past-oriented. The broad scope of time in these cultures enables a view of time that judges minutes and hours as inconsequential.

Forget the stampede and the rush to meet goals. The clock doesn’t rule such cultures – or, in fact, industry or infrastructure in such cultures. A train in India will be late, and few will bother. Late trains and missed deadlines are to be expected.

Cultures who live for today, like France, are considered present-oriented. Their values are more often thrill-seeking and pleasure-based, rather than with a view on the future or the past.

Newer countries with an eye on innovation and the future, like the US, are future-oriented. The “American Dream,” for instance, is a quintessential thread in the country’s cultural fabric.

A dream is an ideal to work toward; hence, it’s always in the future. Milestones are often set to achieve this ideal. And the clock is ticking. This leads to a culture working against the clock.

Time orientation combined with a culture’s values dictate much about the way individuals in said societies live their lives.

We’ll talk about how monochronism and polychronism falls into time orientation next week.

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.

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.

When Being On-Time Means Everything: How Important is Punctuality to Culture?

How does your culture value time?

Are they more often punctual or late?

Do people care?

Time is valued differently across cultures. In some places, like Switzerland or Germany, punctuality is important. Tardiness is unacceptable and often viewed as disrespectful.

In such cultures, daily schedules, goals, and decision-making processes are dictated by time.

Some cultures, on the other hand, don’t stress punctuality. They might be an hour late, a day late, a week late.  And that’s a-okay. Time is not ruled by a schedule, and neither is business.

This can lead to huge headaches in cross-cultural business. When one culture’s concept of time is not the same as your own, how do you deal?

We’ll discuss that over the next few weeks. For now, let’s take a look at why time is viewed differently across cultures.

Finding Cultural Equilibrium

Is our valuation of time deeply engrained in our values? Or is it simply a reaction to others’ tardiness?

A 2002 study on punctuality in culture, entitled, “A Cultural Trait as Equilibrium,” concludes that punctuality is largely reactionary:

“…punctuality may be simply an equilibrium response of individuals to what they expect others to do. The same society can get caught in a punctual equilibrium or a non-punctual equilibrium.”

In other words, individuals of a society may collectively habit-form according to punctuality or tardiness, based on what they expect from their peers. Then this habit becomes a cultural norm.

This study suggests that such habits “could be subject to evolutionary erosion or bolstering.” The researchers consider a society’s punctuality/tardiness norm is both a shared social trait and an individual reaction to our expectations of others, adjusting our behaviors to arrive at equilibrium.

This makes sense. After all, have you ever had a group of friends that were perpetually late and, in knowing that, you found yourself arriving for planned meetups later and later than the set time.

“Fashionably late” is a term for a reason. Who wants to be the first one to arrive, the longest to wait? How unfashionable.

The question is, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did society’s general values about time inform the initial tardiness/punctuality that evolved and became a norm? Or did the values evolve as the norm became more, well, normal?

The Clocks Run On-Time…Literally

While cultural studies tend to delve into the intangible nature of cultural attitudes and values to explain behavior, some behaviors may result from very practical matters.

One interesting theory that developed from a 1980 study on punctuality pattern differences between the United States and Brazil is that Brazilian watches were simply not as reliable, which may have led to less stress on punctuality in Brazilian culture.

When researchers studied various watches in the United States and Brazil, they found evidence to support the theory that “public clocks and personal watches [are] less accurate in Brazil than in the United States.”

An interesting hypothesis, and not a conclusion you’d immediately jump to.

Are Swiss more punctual, because their clocks are notoriously accurate? Or are their clocks notoriously accurate, because they value punctuality?

Do German trains run on time, because their tickers do?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss culture and its relation to time. How it impacts everyday life, communication, orientation, and business relations. Stay tuned.