The structuring of time is a culture-bound phenomenon. The ways in which people locate their present relation to the past and the future as well as the ways in which they feel that time is available for a variety uses have a significant impact on how people order their lives.
Culturally different time concepts have turned out to be a considerable barrier in multicultural work. Differences surface, for instance, in punctuality requirements, adherence to schedules, attitudes towards cancellations and rescheduling, planning, methodical working, or what is found to be relevant or irrelevant to do within a certain time frame. In intercultural interactions, the differences in relation to time can be perceived by the representatives of different cultural groups as, for instance, unprofessional, an insult, or a personal trait (e.g., "an inflexible person").
In intercultural studies, various culturally different orientations to time have been identified. One of the most common one in antropogical studies is the classification into past, present and future time. We will discuss here Hall's classification of monochronic and polychronic time orientation. His classification has influenced also subsequent intercultural communication researchers (e.g., Trompernaars).
Monochronic and polychronic time orientation
Edward T. Hall distinguished two basic time orientations: monochronic and polychronic. The monochronic orientation involves focusing on one task or one issue at a time, and bringing that to completion before starting a new one. Plans how to carry out the task have, in general, been made in advance. In the polychronic orientation, several tasks and issues can be dealt with simultaneously. No exact plans have been made in advance, changes and surprises can be accommodated at a short notice. Completion of the task takes preference over the personal relationships in monochronic time orientation. In polychronic systems, involvement of people and completion of transactions are preferred to adherence to preset schedules.
Finns, as a cultural group, have been classified by Hall, together with, e.g., with the Swiss, Germans, other Scandinavians, British and Americans, as having tendency toward the monochronic time orientation. It should be remembered, however, that people in all cultures behave differently in different situations and there are no "typical" individuals.
© Liisa Salo-Lee, 2006