Chronemics: Perception of Time in Nonverbal Communication

Chronemics is a discipline concerned with the study of a person’s use of time. Chronemics help us to understand how people perceive and structure time in their dialogue and relationships with others.

The very concept of communication as a process implies that it is a time-bound activity. In so many ways, time acts as a fundamental organizing principle for social interaction. The way time is structured may in itself sends messages related to immediacy and closeness (Andersen, 1984).

Think about many everyday American phrases that reflect the cultural view that time is very valuable (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980): “Don’t waste time,” “Save time,” “Spend time,” “Can’t spare time,” “Invest time,” Run out of time,” “Budget time,” “Borrowed time,” “Lose time,” “Use time profitably.”

Spending time with another person sends the message that the person is important and reflects a desire to develop or maintain a close relationship. Egland, Stelzner, Andersen, and Spitzberg (1997) found that the best way to signal relational closeness is to spend time with one’s partner. Similarly, being on time, waiting for a late partner, sharing conversation time, and devoting time to work on the relationship all play a role in the level of emotional closeness partners feel for one another.

The length of time we spend with different people reflects our interpersonal priorities. In Western culture, it is normative to spend more time with people we like than with those we don’t like or who bore us.

In work settings more time is spent with people with high status than those with lower status. For example, bankers spend more time with clients who have large accounts, brokers spend more time with clients who have big investment portfolios, architects meet more often and for longer periods with companies that are building a series of large structures than with individuals who want to build a single home, and fund-raisers invest greater amounts of time in generous donors than in moderate contributors.

Dawna Ballard and David Seibold (2000) observed the reciprocal relationship between time and communication. They believe that communication creates a person’s understanding of time and yet, our sense of time restricts our communication.

Edward T. Hall (1959) noted three time systems, namely: technical time, formal time, and informal time.

Technical time is the scientific measurement of time.

This time system is associated with the precision of keeping time.

Formal time is the time that society formally teaches.

For example, in the United States, the clock and the calendar are the units of formal time.

Thus 1 a.m. is the time we usually go to sleep, and at 1 p.m. we find ourselves at work or school. Also in the United States, the arrangement of time is fixed and rather methodical.

We learn to tell time based on the hour, and children are usually taught how to tell time by using the “big hand” and the “little hand” as references.

Informal time is the time that includes three concepts: duration, punctuality, and activity:

1.   Duration

Duration pertains to how long we allocate for a particular event. In our schedules, we may earmarks forty minutes for grocery shopping or an hour for a religious service. Some of our estimates are less precise. For instance, what does it mean when we respond “be there right away”?

Does that mean we will be there in ten minutes, one hour, or as long as it takes you? And, despite its vague and odd-sounding nature, the statement “I want it done yesterday” is clear to many.

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2.   Punctuality

Punctuality is the promptness associated with keeping time. We’re said to be punctual when we arrive for an appointment at the designated time.

Despite the value placed on punctuality in Western culture, friends may arrive late to lunch, professors late to class, physicians late to appointments, and politicians late to rallies. (In fact, with the tendency of some people to always be tardy, we may question why we even make appointments in the first place.)

Suppose, for instance, that Joan arrives at an interview five minutes late, Joan probably won’t get the job because punctuality is an important value to communicate to a future boss. However, let’s say that the interviewer, Mr. Johansen, is five minutes late for the interview. Of course, he would not lose his job. Similarly, John’s optometrist could be late for his appointment with no consequence, but if John is late for his own appointment, he might have to pay a “no show” fee.

3.   Activity

Activity is a somewhat chronemic value. People in Western cultures are encouraged to “use their time wisely” — in other words, they should make sure their time is used to accomplish something, whether it’s a task or a social function. Simultaneously, they should avoid being so time-occupied that others view them as focused and obsessive.

Our use and management of time is associated with status and power. For example, the old adage “time is money,” which equates an intangible (time) with a tangible (money), suggests that we place a value on our use of time. And as a country with individualistic values, the United States is a society that supports the belief that time is intimately linked to status and power.

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