How to Understand Monochronic and Polychronic Time to Improve International Business Communications

Taking time to court your polychronic peers leads to greater communication and facilitates project goals.
Taking time to court your polychronic peers leads to greater communication and facilitates project goals. (Image: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

Ninety percent of communication is non-verbal. Non-verbal communication utilizes facial expressions, hand gestures and actions instead of words. Such communication is based on sight and nuance, not the concrete concept of time. International business communication relies on time, non-verbal communication and the remaining 10 percent verbal communication to facilitate cross-cultural understanding. Communication in monochronic cultures use monochronic, or linear time, emphasizing deadline-oriented, concise communication to get work done. Conversely, polychronic cultures use polychronic time, placing higher value on developing relationships rather than getting a project finished by a certain deadline. Understanding these differences cultivates greater cooperation across cultures, leading to greater productivity rather than ethnocentrism.

Study the culture you're immersed in and its role behaviors to get a feel for how they view time. Are the team members habitually late for meetings or do they refuse to "get serious" about deadlines? Americans are a deadline-oriented, monochronic culture, accomplishing tasks by following protocol. Conversely, many Latin American and Asian cultures operate on a cyclical, polychronic time schedule. Concentrate on finding ways to mesh those differences by utilizing both non-verbal and verbal cues. Listening in context is a good start.

Actively listen to coworkers, whether you are in a phone meeting or meeting face-to-face. Take time to develop trust and respect among those living on polychronic time. Negotiate from a cultural perspective, not a deadline perspective. Listening builds rapport, but active listening builds rapport, trust and respect. Listen to understand, and keep judgment at bay to reduce misunderstandings.

Avoid judging individuals by your own cultural standards; this is referred to as ethnocentrism. Socially interact with coworkers and team members to improve cross-cultural relationships. Engage in birthday parties, barbeques and other get-togethers. Offer training and rotations within the country of origin to show value and kinship.

Test your boundaries and redefine your ideas of personal space. Monochronic cultures may seem unfriendly, territorial and cold to polychrons if they feel uncomfortable in intimate surroundings. Expect polychronic cultures to conduct business informally and often on the fly. If you go in deadline-oriented and consumed with keeping your personal space, expect culture shock.

Tips & Warnings

  • Be flexible at every level of international business.
  • Use your body to convey messages, just not your mouth.

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