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5 Things You Need To Know About Polychronic People

5 Things You Need To Know About Polychronic People

If you’ve spent any time at all studying cross-cultural communication, you’ll be familiar with the work of American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall, who developed the concepts of polychronic and monochronic time.

In case you haven’t come across Hall and his concepts, here are the highlights:

Monochronic approaches to time are linear, sequential and involve focusing on one thing at a time, whereas polychronic orientations to time are more flexible and involve many things happening at the same time. In a polychronic culture the time that it takes to complete an interaction is elastic and good relationships are more important than any schedule.

It probably won’t surprise you when I say that Western cultures tend towards monochronism, whereas Latin American, African, South Asian, and Arab cultures are firmly in the polychronic camp.

So what does this have to do with you?

If you’re a businessperson from a Western culture dealing with colleagues and clients from other parts of the world, you may be running into trouble. And your conflicting approaches to time might be a big part of the problem. While I don’t have space to detail the differences between monochronic and polychronic cultures here, I would like to offer a few tips for working with polychronic cultures. So here goes:

1. Try to let go of your pre-occupation with time

People from Western cultures tend to be very conscious of time and its value. We even believe that time is money! As a result, we are attached to rigid scheduling and get frustrated when things don’t happen when we expect them to. This approach doesn’t work at all with people from polychronic cultures, who are far more flexible in their approach to time and scheduling. Being late for a meeting, changing times or even cancelling may not be regarded as rude (though you probably feel that these things are at best sloppy and at worst downright disrespectful). If you get frustrated about schedules, you’ll only come across as impatient and inflexible. So, whenever you can… relax. Just a little. It will help you win respect, and it will do wonders for your stress levels.

2. Be prepared for lots of things to happen at once

The most important characteristic of polychronic cultures is multi-tasking. In the real world, this manifests itself in frequent interruption from colleagues, visitors and telephone calls. In extreme cases, several meetings can go on concurrently. Whatever you do, don’t take offence! This is not a sign that you are not respected and valued … it’s just how polychronic people roll.

3. Allow for delays

The worst thing you can do when a meeting starts late or runs over time because of multiple interruptions (phone calls, documents to sign, other visitors joining your meeting) is to lose your patience. This simply reflects badly on your image and attitudes. Always give yourself plenty of time so that you can relax and avoid coming across as rigid, impatient, or stressed. The art of crossing cultures is about managing the contradictions between conflicting values and attitudes.

4. Learn to read the cues

In a polychronic culture, a good meeting where everything is going well may take much longer than originally planned. The attitude here is about “capturing the moment” and making the most  of the opportunity. On the other hand, when a meeting is not going well,  it may be terminated earlier than expected under one pretext or another. Watch and listen carefully for the subtle  hints that your polychronic counterpart  puts out.  S/he may not tell you how they are feeling, but his/her behaviour and willingness to let you share their time is a good clue.

5. Don’t confuse polychronism with lack of punctuality or respect for time

People from polychronic cultures, do value time, but they place a different emphasis on how it should be used. For example, in a polychronic setting, punctuality may be respected, but maintaining good relationships and ensuring harmony between people is more important that the clock. Finding the right time to (for instance) raise a difficult issue is dependent on feelings, emotions and circumstances, rather than  your timeline (or theirs).

While the importance of time is increasingly recognised around world, in many cultures, maintaining harmony is still equally or more important, and trying to get to the bottom line too early in a meeting or a commercial negotiation may be misinterpreted as being rude or discourteous.

For more on approaches to time in the Middle East and North Africa, check out my book, Camels, Sheikhs and Billionaires: Your Guide to Business Culture in the Middle East and North Africa.

If you’d like more information on my work in the cross-cultural communication space, visit our Cross-Cultural Consulting page or write to me on LinkedIn.

If you have a great story or a question about polychronic and monochronic time, go ahead and share it in the comment box, below!


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