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.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Timeline-Oriented Cultures View Time

Do you have the time to talk about time?

You should, because understanding cultural concepts of time matters a great deal to cross-cultural relations.

Time-orientation researchers Alexander Gonzalez and Phillip Zimbardo wrote:

“Every child learns a time perspective that is appropriate to the values and needs of his society.”

Time is directly linked to a society’s values and needs. It is of the utmost importance to cultural understanding.

As we’ve discussed these past few weeks, the way a society views time can explain a lot about their cultural baobab.

For instance, those who are past-oriented value tradition; those who are present-oriented value instant gratification; and those who are future-oriented value goals and long-term benefits.

One last type of time orientation is timeline cognitivity.

Let’s take a look at how timeline-oriented cultures view and value time.

Timeline-Oriented Values

“Time is a wave or a black hole could not bend it; humanity rides the crest of an infinite number of waves that are perceived as linear in their limited frame of reference.” ― Ken Poirot

Timelines are linear, as are timeline-oriented cultures.

They view everything in linear terms with a linear frame of reference.

Individuals in such societies tend to be very detail-oriented but struggle to absorb and understand multiple events simultaneously.

Timeline-oriented cultures also tend to be monochronic, completing one task at a time.

Individuals from such cultures are generally not prone to multitasking.

Monochronic, timeline-oriented cultures value schedules and demonstrate strict time management.

The Devil is in the Details

Differing views on time influence global communications and affairs, necessitating some cross-cultural understanding and diplomacy on the matter.

When it comes to managing or negotiating across cultures, some knowledge of and practice in dealing with these differences in time perspectives and communication styles is key to succeeding in business.