Perception of Time
Studies in chronemics reinforce intercultural studies that have found differences in the polychronic and monochronic perception and uses of time. A “polychronic” perception of time is one in which events are not sharply or sequentially distinguished and multiple events can be seen as happening at the same time. A “monochronic” perception is one that analytically separates and sequences events. The immediate implication is that time is not only a matter of how events are perceived, sequenced, and completed; it is also a matter of how people regard relationships across time.
Time may also be more generally associated with the degree to which a culture or society can be described as “slow” or “fast” (see also Levine and Norenzayan 1999) and is sometimes viewed as a commodity that some people have “more” of than others. Time may be compressed by greater urgency of deadlines and obligations, thus, time and urgency have been associated more with individualistic societies in which the combination of fast pace and diminished social support is likely to contribute to higher levels of burnout and stress (see again Levine and Norenzayan 1999).
Finally, time is typically organized according to different needs and contexts, all the more so in industrialized societies where clearer distinctions tend to be drawn between leisure time, formal or institutional time, and technical or scientific time.
Time as an aspect of cultural life is of interest both because of the observed variations in the meanings attributed to time across cultures — its speed, passage, and meaning; and our location in the past, present, or future — and because of the relationship between increasingly global time regimes and the persistence of local perceptions of time. The things we have in common, such as the passage of time, aging, seasons, and diurnal rhythms, also separate us by virtue of the ways in which we live as much in the perception of time as in the reality.11 Thus, it seems inevitable that the social practices of bargaining, dialogue, and negotiation are shaped by the actors’ experiences of time. Just as isolating culture as a key variable in shaping negotiations can be risky, seeking to isolate and define the impact of cultural perceptions of time on negotiation poses its own challenges. Although time is just one thread in the web of culture, perceptions of time have been regularly identified in studies of the dimensions of cultural difference; and topics examined have included aspects of time likely to be relevant to Western negotiators, such as punctuality. As Guy Olivier Faure and Jeffrey Rubin wrote,
“Cross-cultural differences in the understanding of time also may disturb the process of negotiation. In the West time is conceived of as something akin to a commodity in limited supply; just like a good, it can be saved, wasted, controlled, or organized. In contrast, in the Near East time is not a phenomenon characterized by scarcity. As a result, disparate conceptions of time may complicate the important task of respecting the general time frame of the deadlines established for a particular negotiation (Faure and Rubin 1993: 11).”
Similarly, Richard Brislin and Tomoko Yoshida (1994) also noted differences between cultures in perceptions of punctuality. How time is perceived across cultures is given more substance in the analysis of Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner (1997), who approached the question from the point of view of business management and negotiation. The idea of clock time, which was introduced to the working masses in the industrialized West during the Industrial Revolution, enshrined punctuality as a social value and made the uniform standardization of the length of the paid working day possible. Globalization now seems to be extending that “work day” — technology makes it possible to be “plugged-in” twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; one is often expected to be available to clients and customers at work in another time zone, even if one is “off the clock” (Goudsblom 2001). Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1997) argue, however, that these developments have not completely eliminated nonindustrial perceptions of time and the distinctions we may draw between formal and informal time and between work and leisure time (see also Goudsblom 2001). Time retains certain symbolic and cultural values that still challenge and occasionally subvert the imperatives of globalization. Indeed, the Slow Food Movement may be an indicator of growing resistance to the imperious clock time of the “24/7” and “always-on” world.
Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner further distinguish cultural perceptions of time as either sequential or synchronic. In synchronic cultures, time involves the management of multiple activities and interchangeable sequences, and punctuality competes with other cultural values, such as relationships, obligations, and hierarchy. Such cultures tend to be simultaneously more communitarian and particularist. Status tends to be based more on ascription or on collectively conferred or inherited status and “durable characteristics” (1997: 132) such as gender or age rather than of “achieved” or more individually attained status. In sequential cultures, on the other hand, time is metaphorically perceived as a line, the ordering of time is “efficient,” punctuality is given prime value, and time is a limited commodity. Sequential cultures tend to be more instrumental in their attitudes toward relationships; the present activity is viewed as a means of achieving future goals, status is more fragile and performance-based, and connections can be discarded for personal gain.
Several points may be taken from this analysis. Bearing in mind the risks of generalizations about national types, influential, (if unconscious) time-related values seem to shape intercultural communications. And these perceptions can be expected to affect relationships. Finally, differences in behaviors related to timekeeping, prioritizing, task completion, and punctuality that can cause actors in negotiation to judge each other negatively may arise from differences in their underlying cultural perceptions of time.
Time, of course, is often itself an issue to be negotiated or a source of conflict to be resolved, affecting perceptions of what good outcomes might be and of how long the negotiation process should take. This is true not only when the substance of the negotiations concerns matters of history but also when issues of time have a commercial impact (for capitalists, for example, “time is money”). At the very least, the recognition that there may be competing perceptions of the meaning of time and history should alert negotiators to the potentially disruptive impact of these perceptions and to the opportunity to develop common bases for goal setting and task-orientation.
Richard Brislin and Eugene Kim (2003) provided an analysis of ten aspects of time in which they distinguished between the perceived flexibility of time and the pace of time. Flexibility encompasses punctuality, clock time versus event time, the overlaps between work and social time, and polychronic/synchronic distinction. These distinctions are typically unarticulated and unconscious: most of us, if asked, would not consciously consider that in making arrangements to meet, for example, there may be a difference between a literal time (“8:30 P.M.”) and a broadly defined event (“dinner”).
Under the category of pace, Brislin and Kim (2003) placed attitudes toward waiting and queues; patience or impatience about (perceived) delays; orientations to the past, present, and future; the symbolic or metaphoric value of time; and perceptions about the “efficient” use of time. Interestingly, they also suggested that this category includes an aspect of behavior directly related to the mechanics of negotiation: one’s degree of comfort with long silences. A negotiator’s discomfort with such silences can reveal his or her preference to “use” time efficiently and move the negotiation along in a timely manner rather than accepting that the pace of events is other than — and probably slower than — she or he might prefer. In the Pacific Islands, for example, respect is accorded to a negotiation counterpart if an intervention or suggestion is followed by silence, which indicates that the suggestion is being considered. A negotiator unfamiliar with this convention risks filling the apparent gaps with further explanations or unnecessary verbiage.
In a negotiation, implicit attitudes about time can affect the pace of the conversation, the degree to which the apparently available (i.e., “scheduled”) time is filled with activities that are perceived as extraneous or irrelevant (social conversation, meals), and the setting of priorities. Parties with different cultural attitudes toward time will accord different priorities to the kinds of activities and small talk that may be necessary for building a negotiation relationship.