Edward T. Hall, one of the preeminent American socio-anthropologists of the 20th Century and author of The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time (Anchor Books/Doubleday, New York, 1983), among other intriguing works, once stated,
“We ceased effective time management and, more critically, chronological comprehension when we externalized time into mechanisms.”
Hall set out to explore how different cultures could even function when their apparent comprehension and use of “time” in public and private interactions, the very definitions and processes for what seemed to be key components of time measurement and value, were clearly different from that which he had experienced from birth in his own life.
Monochronic versus Polychronic
One key differentiation he identified was characterized as monochronic versus polychronic time cultures.
His explanation of these “time cultures” is very applicable to the way we “spend” our time, how we manage our relationships and transactions in “real” time, and how our society functions (or doesn’t function!). Hall found that “complex societies organize time in at least two different ways: events scheduled as separate items – one thing at a time – as in North Europe, or following the Mediterranean model of involvement in several things at once”. Now, those were just two adjacent same-continent regional cultures that he contrasted, so do not be quick to condemn him as anthropocentric. In fact, his studies and experiences found that a similar differentiation of time systems differentiated many other cultures throughout the world.
Monochronic: One thing at a time. Task, schedule and procedure oriented. Advocates tend toward obsessive time and task management. Being “on time” is essential. The dictatorship of the schedule often supersedes quality and completion, and “the organization has a higher priority than the functions it performs”.
Polychronic: Many things at a time. People and relationship oriented. Practitioners tend to work in an area of no immediately visible order or system, verging on chaos in the public arena where “being on time” and receiving individual attention is less critical. Organizations tend to exaggerate bureaucracy and require special “insider” knowledge for superior functionality to occur. Personal relationships and private transactions tend to be preferred when higher levels of efficiency and quality are desired.
How you perform, how you perceive of, react to, use or manage time in all tasks and relationships will tend toward the time culture in which you were raised, nurtured, educated and live. If you have lived in a different time culture for a while, after initial frustration and a loss of productive engagement, you may learn to adapt to a greater or lesser degree. By nature, you will tend to characterize cultures (whether national, community, family or individual business/agency) in less than favorable terms if they are of the “other” time culture than yours regardless of the side of the equation from which you approach.
I have only touched the surface of Edward T. Hall’s thoughts regarding just this one aspect of time in culture (monochronal versus polychronal), and not even broached his significant ideas on other even more remarkable aspects. I encourage reading the fascinating The Dance of Life to bring this and his other “discoveries” to life for you. I encourage your consideration of which system you “inhabit” and if you have yet learned to adapt when you interface with those living and working in a different time culture than yours.
“One Thing at a Time” versus “Multi-Tasking”
In our greatly complex, blended multi-cultural world, and in this world-wide communications era, understanding the operative “language of time” is of great value toward having time on your side!
For years, management gurus demanded that we must all “multi-task” to use our limited resource of time effectively. More recently, virtually the same people now proclaim that “multi-tasking is dead” and counterproductive, and demand that we do one thing at a time. The difference between Monochronal and polychronal time cultures has not been well comprehended. A fresh consideration of cultural traditions and effects in that matter would be of great benefit.
Few of the time management advocates have apparently been exposed to, comprehended or successfully practiced basic “critical path” planning and actions, or they would have found one way of making use of both time cultures and how to effectively integrate one’s actions in a world that lives them both at the same time (talk about multi-tasking!). If they would also consider that approach as they actually explore time cultures, perhaps they would not have advocated first steering into one ditch of narrow-focused time management and then over-correcting into the other. Both cultures exist and work, not just side by side, but at the same time. What a great and valuable paradox to grasp!
Oh, and if you refuse to make time to deal with this aspect of how “time” is really lived, please be advised that
Your schedule is not my reality.