Marginalia Journal

Timely Delayed: Attitudes toward Time across Cultures

Ever spent an hour waiting for your friend, who promised to be there on time…again? Ever heard ‘just a minute’ from a sales assistant that kept on chatting on the phone and trying to serve you at once? Not to mention struggling through piles of memos trying to arrange them in a perfectly organized day. These are all examples of how different people perceive time and make use of their schedule, either combining pastimes, or opting for tackling their errands one by one. While time planning may seem to be a personal skill developed from individual responsibility, endurance, and experience, in fact it partially originates from customs, traditions, and education, and is cultivated in a cultural environment.

Julius Caesar is believed to have been able to perform multiple tasks at once with the same ardour and effectiveness, as if he was only occupied with a single activity. Today cultural psychologists call this type of response to time polychronic or synchronic. People, who can run several tasks simultaneously, perceive time perspective as a circle, a spiral line, or a number of intersecting curves. When planning their day and having to deal with tasks A, B, C, and D, they often run A late into the time period intended for B. They might then decide to postpone B till the end of the day, and combine C and D (for example, inviting a colleague to join their tennis practice and to discuss a contract in the meantime), remembering to drop in for E, although it wasn’t planned for another week.

Polychronic way of dealing with time is associated with orientation towards the past that provides valuable experience for analogous situations in the future, or the present generally managed on a daily basis. Great importance is attached to emotional contact among people, rather than to social norms and regulations, as if the time frame was enveloping people within it.

On the contrary, monochronic or sequential tradition views time as a straight path or stretched ribbon, divided into accurate segments, along which routine is organized. The tasks are deliberately classified into work, leisure, emotional contacts, transition between activities, etc., after which each task is assigned with a separate portion of time. The day then flows smoothly from A to B and into C, until a monochronic person meets a synchronic one at point D, where the routine falls out of meticulously planned pace, as time perceptions come into conflict. A sequential approach to time also means being future-oriented thus requiring regular planning with actually sticking to that plan.

These two types of response to time are not merely personal traits; they rather characterize cultures as a whole, with individuals acquiring those characteristics through acquiring culture. Nordic and Central Europe, North America, Great Britain, and Japan are traditionally considered as monochronic cultures, while polychromic countries include the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, South and Southeast Asia. There is also a group of countries ‘in between’, called variably monochronic cultures. Russia, Southern Europe and most of East-Central Europe, are among them.

When representatives of cultures with different approaches towards time meet, they often fail to understand each other’s intentions and ways to interact, especially in business communication. Monochronists view their opponents as undisciplined, lazy, irresponsible people, who can’t be blindly trusted or relied on. On the other hand, polychronists consider their foreign partners to be obsessed with rules and formalities, and seek to establish emotional bonding before switching to professional matters.

It is therefore extremely important to find out which type of time perception is traditional for a culture, at least to familiarize yourself with the timing of ‘allowed’ tardiness for a particular situation, as well as with the form of apology (if ever necessary) that should be applied to it. One of the most apparent spheres, where the attitude towards time reveals itself, is the vocabulary used to speak about time.
Sequential cultures value punctuality and exact timing, that is why they always refer to a certain time like ‘three o’clock’ or ‘4.30 p.m.’, rather than just saying ‘in the afternoon’ or ‘later on’ as a synchronist would put it. The latter think of time as something that can be easily extended and rearranged, stretching the so-called ‘rubber time’ (Indonesian jam karet). While polychronists see time as a fluid matter, and don’t generally attach timing to events, monochronists think that time might may be ‘spent’, ‘saved’, or ‘wasted’ just like money.

In this perspective the study of the variably monochronic cultures, including East-Central Europe and Russia becomes highly promising. For those areas attitude towards time is closely connected to the other cultural dimensions: the balance between individualism and communality, universalism and particularism, internal and external control. Having the features of both ends of the scale, those countries do not provide a straightforward and predictable pattern of behaviour for their people, causing more confusion over timing tradition.

So next time when you are running late to a meeting think of what type of response to time your friends might use – you have good chances of being the first one to actually get to the place.

          Ksenia Zheltoukhova

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