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Introducing monochronic and polychronic time

This video discusses cultural preferences on monochromic (linear, sequential, analogue) and polychromic (concurrent, multi-tasking, digital) time cont
[Steve Kulich] At another level, time expectations are also very complex. Edward T Hall gave us a very helpful demarcation between m-time, monochronic, or p-time, polychronic. We found that these m or p differences really do affect a lot of cross-cultural frustrations and expectations. Monochronic, or m-time, means, of course, mono, linear, one thing at a time in how we sequence or do things. We find that process is very important and specify time from point A to point B in a linear fashion. We notice this more and more being adopted in the world of business. It’s quite common in customer service to have to wait in line or in a queue and not to jump the queue.
We find that international banks and airports now have this yellow line where everyone must wait behind the line to be served. Usually, m-time is reflected by those who keep detailed calendars, like to set item-by-item agendas or very specific time appointments, especially what time does the meeting begin and when should it end. Though this type of behaviour is very effective and can be very efficient, it isn’t necessarily the style of everyone in the world. Many cultures prefer more complex modes, and our world is becoming more and more multitasking, so we have to deal with things differently. [Steve Kulich] In contrast, a polychronic orientation seeks to handle multiple things at one time, and especially multiple relationships.
And we find it often in high context, group-oriented cultures. [CHI Ruobing] Yeah, that’s true. In your typical Chinese market, you can actually see the people behind the counter entertain each customers concurrently. It’s not in a sequence, but just one question for one customer so that they keep all the relationships going. [Steve Kulich] In fact, it’s not just a matter of East and West. We find waiters in restaurants doing the same thing. They have to wait on each table and make sure at different times different customers’ needs are satisfied. But it is more typical of Eastern, or especially Confucius-based cultures, or those were collectivism or group orientation is stronger. [CHI Ruobing] Yeah, that’s true.
And this multitasking is actually one merit of being a polychronic person. [Steve Kulich] Yeah. And we find that people actually sometimes do a better job of managing multiple things through the day. They may work very intensively and then be able to take short breaks, and we find these are woven together. Perhaps for a Western business manager specialist, it’s a little bit too mixed up. But in fact, there’s a very strong perspective of holistically attending to both people and task, which is quite impressive. [CHI Ruobing] Yes. To balance this relationship and also your tasks is another merit of being a polychronic person. [Steve Kulich] That’s right.
And I think we realise more and more that we live in a world where both are required of us. I think you see this especially in your relationships. [CHI Ruobing] Yes. In family relationships, I believe that there’s two styles that coexist. For example, one partner may be more polychronic, so they are trying to taking care of the kids and also cleaning and maybe cooking together, while the other person may be good at monochronic tasking arrangements– so for example, preparing for the priority list of the family and also doing all the things in a sequence. [Steve Kulich] Obviously, personality influences this. Age influences this.
I think we’ve gone from business models that were much more linear and monochronic to a world now where this type of multitasking happens more often. So there is change happening as well. [CHI Ruobing] Yes. So if you observe how people use their smartphones, you probably will also notice the differences. Polychronic people may download a lot of different apps and also opening all of them and doing tasks that are not related at all. [Steve Kulich] I’m definitely monochronic. I download as minimum as possible and try to work on a few things in a rather linear fashion in that sense. [CHI Ruobing] Yeah. There is definitely an age gap in that sense.
[Steve Kulich] And we find, actually, with postmodernism or youth more interested in images and things, they have a better ability to manage this diversity of inputs at the same time, some of us just feel we’re too old for that kind of change. And yet we have to change. [CHI Ruobing] Yes. So in this ever-changing world, we hope that our course could prepare you with better perspectives and adjust well to this polychronic and modern society.

This video discusses cultural preferences on monochromic (linear, sequential, analogue) and polychromic (concurrent, multi-tasking, digital) time contrasts. These are shown in individualist, collectivistic and specialized cultures.

Time expectations across cultures are very complex. Hall’s chronemics provided the very helpful demarcation between M-time and P-time, which helps explain many cross-cultural expectations, miscommunications, and frustrations.

M-time (Monochronic) orientations typically:

  • Emphasize linear, step-wise sequencing (like an analog clock)
  • Prefer doing one thing at a time or meeting with one person at a time, with preference for clear beginnings and endings
  • Fit well with low-context, individual- and task-oriented cultures
  • Prefer process thinking, specified procedures, clear tasks, goals, objective or measurable outcomes.
This is increasingly adopted in the world of business or the service industry (like having to wait in a queue, and the implementation of a yellow line to wait in line behind). This type of behavior aims to be effective and can be very efficient in controllable contexts
P-time (Polychronic) orientations typically:
  • Emphasize holistic, polyphonic, synchronous action (like a digital clock)
  • Prefer doing multiple things (dynamic schedules), responding to a diversity of inputs, or relating to several people at the same time
  • Fit high-context, group- and relationship-oriented cultures
As with HC and LC, no culture fully implementsM-time or P-time across the board. A Chinese bank follows line-up M-time while a wet-market keeps multiple customers happy with P-time concurrent customer service.
It’s no longer about differences between East and West, North and South (our former geographic descriptions or stereotypes are being challenged). Waiters at sit-down restaurants anywhere in the world have to satisfy customers at different tables concurrently, while even localized fast-food restaurants takes order by queuing up. Older people in most cultures might prefer slower M-time sequences of activities, but youth around the world tend to be more accustomed to faster P-time plurality. Globalization, new media, and digital apps as pushing people everywhere toward more multi-tasking, so whatever your orientation was before, most of us have to learn to deal with things differently.
Take some time to recall which time modes you most frequently encounter. We hope that these M- and P-time constructs help better prepare you for which ever styles this changing world exposes you to.

Additional resources:

As a review and expansion of this step, you might find the “Characteristics and Behaviors” of M- and P-time assessment helpful at these sites:

The Concept of Time

Your Time or My Time

We also recommend the download of Jeff Burglund’s “Time (Chronemics)” entry in the Sage Encyclopedia of Intercultural Communication Competence

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Intercultural Communication: Dynamics of cultural identities in global interaction

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