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  • Jan Gleisner

Time matters - the chronemics of nonverbal communication


Time matters, either one consider it to be valuable or not. Studying time in conjunction with communication is studying Chronemics. The perspective on and handling of time does create a lot of nonverbal cues in peoples verbal as well as nonverbal communication and effecting the communication itself. The chronemics of nonverbal communication is also a big thing between cultures - it can make the difference between a successful and disastrous meetings, dates, co-working and so on.

Being or being on time - chronemics about time in human life

Which one of these two profiles would best describe you?

  • I do one thing at a time, keep deadlines and schedules, have primary attention on work and results, appreciate privacy and ownership, build temporary and practical relationships.

  • I do many things at a time, have attention on what's happening around me, take goals and results seriously, appreciate people and sharing, build strong and long-lasting relationships.

The first group (monochronic) value time like a precious commodity - something to earn, use, share, win, save, loose, etc. The second group (polychronic) value other things more, like relations. This difference is also highly correlated to cultural differences:

Many in the first group are found in USA, Germany, Scandinavia and Japan and in the second group mainly in Latin America, Africa, South Asia and arab countries. But both profiles are also represented within every country.

Nonverbal cues of chronemics

Through nonverbal communication it's possible to figure out who is who - a useful knowledge when trying to reach over cultural borders. Look for the nonverbal cues - here are some of them.

You have probably spotted a person from the first group if he/she:

  • Usually shows up on time for meetings

  • Pushes meetings forward, eager to move on the next issue

  • Plans ahead and keeps schedules

  • Keeps timeframes and not being very flexible with his/her time

  • Prefers to do one thing at a time

  • Usually finishes the job in time, and as asked for

A person from the second group will more likely:

  • Be late for a meeting as he/she got stuck in some social interaction

  • Uses the meeting to go deeper into the matter of things and to build relationships

  • Easily changes their plans

  • Does not keep timeframes and is very flexible with his/her time

  • Does many things at a time

  • May not finish the job in time or as expected but may deliver what he/she thinks you need rather than what you asked for

Confusion and conflict

Communication and co-working with people in the opposite group can be confusing which makes way for conflicts as people may feel disrespected and misunderstood. Take international business meetings for example. One part is on time for the meeting while the other is one hour late. One is diving directly into the first issue while the other wants to start with coffee and small talk. One is pushing on to the next issue while the other is bringing new perspectives to the first one. One does what is agreed upon while the other does something that is potentially better. The list goes on. Dating with someone of the opposite type rises similar problems. Being a tourist in a different country can be quite a challenge when you depend on people of the opposite type.

On a personal level - crossing the border

But knowing about the differences makes way for a higher tolerance between the two groups as one can acknowledge more of needs of the other and adapt ones own behavior to them. Knowing about these chronemic differences also make way for a more satisfying life for yourself, now being able to pick the best from two worlds.

On a global level - developing or spinning?

Okay, this section is not about nonverbal communication. But as chronemics is not only a nonverbal communication aspect but also a cultural aspect, it would be strange to leave it out. You'll see what I mean.

One oriented in industrial history may notice how well the geographic pattern of monochronic and polychronic cultures correlate with the early industrialization over the globe. Taylorism and fordism formed a clockwork around an assembly line where time-management formed a foundation for successful production. And there seems to be a link between industrial concept and the monochronic culture, and some scientist argue the former came first. And the monochronic culture also seems to spread, through the ongoing industrialization in for example Asia and India. Monochronic culture pushes for owning, efficiency, results and growth which seems to keep the production-consumption-wheel spinning faster and faster, and the polychronics having difficulties to keep up. The spreading may also be at the expense of the polychronic culture where other values reside - values that facilitate a sharing- and recycle-economy. It'se easy to relate these developments to environmental and sustainability issues. But perhaps I wander off to far here, without solid facts to stand on. I'm sure thou that you as a reader can relate to this matter, regardless of where in the world you live.

Chronemics definition

Thomas J. Bruneau at Radford University defined chronemics in the 1970's as the study of human tempo in relation to our communication.

Need to know more about chronemics, about chronemics and communication or have some more chronemics examples? Then this article at Wikipedia might share som light.

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