The Importance of Being On Time…But According to Whom?


Chronemics is the study of the use of time in nonverbal communication. How we perceive time, structure our time and react to time is a powerful communication tool, and helps set the stage for the communication process. Across cultures, time perception plays a large role in the nonverbal communication process. Time perceptions include punctuality, willingness to wait, and interactions. The use of time can affect lifestyles, daily agendas, speed of speech, movements and how long people are willing to listen.

Mike McGlinn, a senior vice president at The Northern Trust and adviser extraordinaire (see May 22, 2008, entry on biting your tongue), and I were talking about his important guidelines for leading teams. One guideline is stressing the importance of starting and ending meetings on time – punctuality overall. I agree and see this as a sign of respect for the time of the other people participating in the meeting. Does that mean Mike and I are monochronics?

Monochronic and Polychronic time systems are two systems commonly used to reference time and its influence on society.

  • Monochronic: Things are done one at a time and time is segmented into precise, small units. Under this system time is scheduled, arranged and managed. Think North American and Western European cultures.
  • Polychronic: Several things can be done at once, and a more fluid approach is taken to scheduling time. Think Latin American and Arabic cultures.

The statement “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” holds true with chronemics if you are undergoing an organization change or transformation, forming a new team, merging companies, working with a global team etc. Assess the situation and respond accordingly:

  • Even though you are a timely person, you may have to deal with someone who is not as timely as you are. As appropriate, adapt your communication to their needs. These adaptations can vary depending on the position of the person you are dealing with, as well as the cultural background of that person.
  • Although you will sometimes have to adapt to others, there will be times that things would be more positively balanced if the other parties adapted to your concept of time.
  • Other assumptions: Consider main country location of the company, origin / influences of person you are meeting with, topic to be considered, time on year.

Adapted from Wikipedia

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