Hall (1984). Monochronic and Polychronic Time. (The dance of life: The other dimension of time.)

Hall, E. T. (1984). Monochronic and Polychronic Time. In The dance of life: The other dimension of time (pp. 44–58). Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

“There as no escaping it, here was another world, but in this instance, although both Spanish and Anglos had their roots firmly planted in European soil, each handled time in radically different ways.” (p 45)

“I have termed doing many things at once: Polychronic, P-time. The North American system — doing one thing at a time — is Monochronic, M-time.1 P-time stresses involvement of people and completion of transactions rather than adherence to preset schedules. Appointments are not taken as seriously and, as a consequence, are frequently broken. P-time is treated as less tangible than M-time. For polychronic people, time is seldom experienced as ‘wasted,’ and is apt to be considered a point rather than a ribbon or a road, but that point is often sacred. An Arab will say, ‘I will see you before one hour,’ or ‘I will see you after two days.’ What he means in the first instance is that it will not be longer than an hour before he sees you, and at least two days in the second instance. These commitments are taken quite seriously as long as one remains in the P-time pattern.” (p 46)

“In contrast, people in the Western world find little in life exempt from the iron hand of M-time.2 Time is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of existence that we are hardly aware of the degree to which it determines and coordinates everything we do, including the molding of relations with others in many subtle ways. In fact, social and business life, even one’s sex life, is commonly schedule-dominated. By scheduling, we compartmentalize; this makes it possible to concentrate on one thing at a time, but it also reduces the context.3 Since scheduling by its very nature selects what will and will not be perceived and attended, and permits only a limited number of events within a given period, what gets scheduled constitutes a system for setting priorities for both people and functions. Important things are taken up first and allotted the most time; unimportant things are left to last or omitted if time runs out.” (p 48)

“Monochronic time seals off one or two people from the group and intensifies relationships with one other person or, at most, two or three people. M-time in this sense is like a room with a closed door ensuring privacy. The only problem is that you must vacate the ‘room’ at the end of the allotted fifteen minutes or an hour, a day, or a week, depending on the schedule, and make way for the next person in line.” (p 48)

“Monochronic time is arbitrary and imposed, that is, learned. Because it is so thoroughly learned and so thoroughly integrated into our culture, it is treated as though it were the only [page break] natural and logical way of organizing life. Yet, it is _not_ inherent in man’s biological rhythms or his creative drives, nor is it existential in nature.” (p 48-49)

“It subtly influences how we think and perceive the world in segmented compartments. This is convenient in linear operations but disastrous in its effect on nonlinear creative tasks.” (p 49)

“In contrast, M-time people schedule the activity and leave the analysis of the activities of the job to the individual. A P-type analysis, even though technical by its very nature, keeps reminding the subordinate that his job is not only a [page break] system but also part of a larger system. M-type people, on the other hand, by virtue of compartmentalization, are less likely to see their activities in context as part of the larger whole.” (p 50-51)

“Giving the organization a higher priority than the functions it performs is common in our culture. This is epitomized in television, where we allow the TV commercial, the ‘special message,’ to break the continuity of even the most important communication. There is a message all right, and the message is that art gives way to commerce — polychronic advertising agencies impose their values on a monochronic population.” (p 51)

“The blindness of the monochronic organization is to the humanity of its members. The weakness of the polychronic type lies in its extreme dependence on the leader to handle contingencies and stay on top of things.” (p 52)

“Polychronic cultures are by their very nature oriented to people. Any human being who is naturally drawn to other human beings and who lives in a world dominated by human relationships will be either pushed or pulled toward the polychronic end of the time spectrum. If you value people, you must hear them out and cannot cut them off simply because of a schedule.” (p 53)

“M-time, on the other hand, is oriented to tasks, schedules, and procedures. As anyone who has had experience with our bureaucracies knows, schedules and procedures take on a life their own without reference to either logic or human [page break] needs.” (p 53-54)

“All cultures with high technologies seem to incorporate both polychronic as well as monochronic functions.” (p 58)

Selected Notes

  • 1. Beyond Culture by Edward T. Hall, 1976 (pp. 17-20, 150-51, Anchor Press/Doubleday), also discusses these two time systems.
  • 2. The exceptions are the large and important minorities who trace their origins to Spain (Spanish Americans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Hispanos from Mexico, as well as other parts of Latin America). The P-pattern tends to be associated with binding family ties, with large groups of relatives. One wonders if it is not an artifact of informal culture in such a situation as that of almost a hundred relatives arriving without notice or on very short notice and making demands. The Jews, the Arabs, and the Spanish share close family ties and extensive networks of friends as a cultural characteristic, and, though there are exceptions, all tend to be polychronic.
  • 3. Chapter 4 is devoted to context.
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