Polychronous and monochronous time


A Westerner who moves to tropical islands —yes, it’s lived experience— discovers time management that is also very far from his own. It is not a question of folklore which takes the place of the previous one but of a radically different approach to daily affairs. The Westerner sequences his tasks. He mainly focuses his attention on one of them and the others fade into the background. The Western coach materialized this operation in the form of a Kanban board, a multi-column tool where tasks are moved from ‘to do’ to ‘in progress’ then ‘under review’ and finally ‘completed’. Small train that should not be too crowded. It is possible to place several tasks in the ‘in progress’ wagon, but it is up to you, depending on your ability to manage the influx of requests. You don’t let your environment fill it with impunity or the quality of your work ends up collapsing, you see.

This Western sequential time is called monochronous. Attention focused on the task mentally elected as priority. On the contrary, the islander’s time is polychronous. When the Westerner tries to concentrate the discussion on one subject, he deals with several at once. He delays his response, moves on to something else without concluding, takes phone calls unrelated to the conversation, participates in several at the same time. The Westerner sees this as a lack of interest in the main subject or as rudeness. But it is only the expression of a multiplied thread of thought, without the islander’s brain being different: it does not have several mental “processors” working in parallel. His attention focuses on one task at a time, like the Westerner, but jumps easily from one topic to another, picking up each one where he left off previously.

Behind the alibi of the cultural gap

Where does this difference come from, if the mental architectures are the same? What is actually hidden in the “culture gap” alibi? The driving force behind UniPhiM, the universal method used on this blog, is the TD principle (whole/part, soliTary/soliDary), very valuable for solving this type of puzzle. The explanation here lies in the more marked communitarianism of the islander. Solidarity has always been a predominant element of survival in these isolated environments, with limited possibilities for exchange. Unable to receive external support, the collective takes precedence over the individual. The island D is stronger than the T. It’s the opposite for Westerners. Exacerbated individualities bring happiness and misfortune to communities, but in the second case exile from the group is possible. Individualism is less repressed.

The Western expatriate quickly learns that if he considers himself entirely responsible for his words and actions (strong T), this is not the case for his island interlocutors, who speak as part of the group and not as independence (strong D), with a diluted responsibility that the West too quickly labels as irresponsibility. He judges with his soliTary standards, unsuitable for soliDarity.

Competitive or supportive threads of thought?

What does this have to do with mental time management? The same principle applies to competing threads of thought in consciousness. The islander does not consider any of them superior to the others, except in a very temporary way. All these threads are jointly the Self. Any focused discussion remains a part of the mental universe, without Totalitarian power. Other subjects can knock on the door of attention whenever they want; they will be listened to.

The Westerner, trained in technicality and hyperspecialization, considers that concentration on a subject makes him more efficient. All mental resources are sucked away by this subject. He is right in the moment. Not necessarily over time, because decisions mature for less time. The constraints of competition and productivity are not identical in the two cultures. The West is a crowd of T(s) in perpetual competition, noted in the short term, having to legislate to avoid the degradation of the D (obligatory social redistribution), while the Islands are above all community spirits, with a collective consciousness curbing individual competition.

The passage of time and the weather

Of course the size of human groups and their isolation are not the only criteria influencing TD mental adjustment and psychological time management. The ease of obtaining vital resources, and therefore indirectly the climate, are other essential criteria. It is no coincidence that there is a certain cultural homogeneity depending on latitude. Experienced time thus finds its communion of language with atmospheric time (‘time’ and ‘weather’ are the same word ‘temps’ in french), with a beat correlated to the strength of seasonal variations. Time passes more quickly in high latitudes punctuated by harsh winters than in Equator and its perpetual summer. Individual life is brief in the first, mixed with the eternity of the ancestors in the second.


1 thought on “Polychronous and monochronous time”

  1. This reminds me of the time/task management tool that came to prominence near the close of the twentieth century: multitasking. It was the order of the time when everyone wanted more done in the allotted time of the work day. All good employees bought into the strategy and did all they could to do more than had been traditionally expected. Employees not buying into the scheme might be sacked, shifted or shunned. Those unbelievers faced dead end jobs with no chance of promotional opportunity, unless they were willing and able to get higher education required for jobs requiring leadership skills, i.e., those lofty upper management positions, not requiring multitasking. One thing never admitted? No one can do half a dozen things at once, and do all of them well. I’m not in the rat wheel. Thank goodness.


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