How we perceive time and how it affects our emotional well-being
By Brittney MacDonald, Staff Writer
During some grand bout of insomnia I began to ponder my own concept of time—how I perceived it and why I perceived it that particular way. Attempting to logically analyze all of this at 4 a.m. was probably my most unsuccessful idea this year, and succeeded only in keeping me awake another two hours ‘til I had to be up to get ready for class. After I had given up trying to find answers in my semi-conscious state, and eventually gotten enough sleep to not be completely useless and crazy, I looked it up using the almighty Internet.
Anyone who has taken an introduction to communications class might be familiar with Edward Hall and his works concerning monochronic and polychronic concepts of time, in which he identifies Western society as being almost exclusively celebratory and rewarding of a monochronic lifestyle. For those unfamiliar with these terms, I will explain briefly.
Chronemics is the study of the way one perceives and structures their time, especially as an element of nonverbal communication. Basically, how you associate with time says a lot about you as a person—kind of like how a potential employer will assume you’re irresponsible if you show up to the interview late. Monochronic time refers to a system in which things are done one at a time within a strict schedule. Once the time allotted to one task is done, work will not continue on that task. The concept of time becomes something that must be managed, as opposed to polychronic time where time becomes more fluid and adaptable.
In a polychronic system, multiple tasks can be performed at once, and rather than a strict schedule you simply devote as much time as necessary to each task. That way if you finish a simple task early, you can apply that extra time to a more difficult task later on, or vice versa. The polychronic concept of time is where we get the term multi-tasking from. To use an example, some people have to have music or a television on while they study or work on an essay in order to reduce stress and be able to concentrate. These people are naturally more productive under a polychronic time system, as opposed to people who have to work in complete silence, undisturbed. Those kinds of people are naturally more disposed towards a monochronic system.
Originally published in his book The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time, Hall wrote an essay on monochronic and polychronic time in which he stated, “By scheduling, we compartmentalize; this makes it possible to concentrate on one thing at a time, but it also reduces the context. 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.”
Put simply, the monochronic system requires you to prioritize what’s more important to you: the people you love who may need your time and support, or your schedule. To most people putting aside a simple schedule in order to be there for someone who needs you from time to time takes priority without a doubt, which is why there are no true binary examples within chronemics. No one person is exclusively devoted to either the polychronic or monochronic system. We usually live our lives with a mixture of both, with either one taking precedence based on the situation.
Now I get it, you’re scratching your head pondering why this all matters. The reason it’s important is because chronemics isn’t just applied to individuals; entire societies can perceive time under these particular terms as well, and not much changes in their definition when examining how they affect a culture as opposed to a single person. What does change is the adaptable nature of switching between the two systems. People can set priority based off of emotion, but society cannot.
Canada and the United States are seen as monochronic societies, obsessed with schedules. Because of the need to prioritize economic tasks on a grand scale, very little regard is paid to the individual. It has been getting better in recent years, with the advent of “stress” being a more widely accepted and valid reason to take medical leave, but still as a society we pay very little attention to the needs of the people around us in a non-generalized sense. To sum it up, the needs of the many outweigh the wants of the few, especially where deadlines are concerned.
Surprisingly, not all societies are like this. Latin American and some Asian societies run under a polychronic system. These societies prioritize tradition and social relationships as opposed to an almighty schedule. Instead, time is dictated by a rural clock of work or community life, and sometimes religious festivities. Time becomes less about the arbitrary division of hours, and more about however long something will take in order to be done right. An employee or business owner is not seen as responsible because they show up for work every day exactly at 9 a.m., but because they maintain a good working relationship with their colleagues and customers. This has its downsides of course: personal reputation plays a big part in how successful you are professionally, so any misdemeanour or lapse in judgment is taken far more seriously.
As members of a society that values the monochronic system, we have been raised to believe that working hard will result in economic gain, which is good. But by placing priority on work and career schedules, we start isolating ourselves from those around us, which leads to depression. Hall refers to this as the “anti-human aspect of M-time [monochronic time].” We deny our natures as essentially a pack animal, and “alienate” ourselves to better focus on time management and extracting every cent out of the time we are allotted.
Hall’s essay on polychronic and monochronic time was published in 1984, well before the technological boom of the smartphone. So it doesn’t take into account the isolating nature of modern technology, which has also been blamed for the rising rates of depression. To be honest I can’t say that Canada’s focus on monochronic time, or our generation’s dependence on Facebook and text messaging are exclusively responsible for the near epidemic levels of depression we as a society face, but I can say with confidence that it’s certainly not helping. So, as an individual with a hectic schedule myself, I think it’s important to take time back. Maybe you can’t become polychronic in nature, but you can place a greater priority on maintaining personal relationships face to face, rather than through email or chat logs. In the end it all becomes about the balance, the personal and professional. Even if you don’t think you need it, that friend you considered calling up for a night on the town, might.