Continuing our series looking at cross-cultural communication issues we now turn our attention to monochronic versus polychronic cultures and the impact that can have on communication.
Monochronic cultures like to do just one thing at a time. They value a certain orderliness and sense of there being an appropriate time and place for everything. They do not value interruptions. They like to concentrate on the job at hand and take time commitments very seriously.
In addition monochronic people tend to show a great deal of respect for private property and are reluctant to be either a lender or a borrower. This is part of a general tendency to follow rules of privacy and consideration as well as adhere religiously to plans.
Polychronic cultures like to do multiple things at the same time. A manager's office in a polychronic culture typically has an open door, a ringing phone and a meeting all going on at the same time. Though they can be easily distracted they also tend to manage interruptions well with a willingness to change plans often and easily. People are their main concern (particularly those closely related to them or their function) and they have a tendency to build lifetime relationships. Issues such as promptness are firmly based on the relationship rather than the task and objectives are more like desirable outcomes than must do's.
If you live in the United States, Canada, or Northern Europe, you live in a monochronic culture. If you live in Latin America, the Arab part of the Middle East, or sub-Sahara Africa, you live in a polychronic culture.
Interactions between the two types can be problematic. Monochronic businessmen cannot understand why the person they are meeting is always interrupted by phone calls and people stopping by. Is it meant to be insulting? When do they get down to business?
Polychronic businessmen cannot understand why tasks are isolated from the organisation as a whole and measured by output in time instead of part of the overall organisational goal. How can you separate work time and personal time? Why would you let something as silly as a schedule negatively impact on the quality of your relationships?
You can quickly see the problems. Recognising whether you are dealing with a polychronic or monochronic culture and the attendant differences in how time and relationships are valued is crucial to being able to communicate effectively across cultures.