What Is Chronemics?

Does the way we perceive time affect technology design?

Half of a clock on a wall

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Chronemics is the study of how time is used in communication. Time can be used as a communication tool in many ways, from punctuality to expectations around waiting and response time, to general principles around time management.

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Chronemics has become an area of study primarily for anthropologists, who look at cultural norms around the use of time, and the way cultures can vary and converge around different norms. More recently, chronemics appears to be branching out into other disciplines, such as the more business-oriented study of organizational behavior.

Does Chronemics Matter in Tech?

Technology is very often associated with efficiency, allowing users to get more done in a given amount of time. It’s no surprise then, that chronemics can factor into technology in a number of ways.

Time is an important variable and currency for both agile startups and large technology firms. Creating a technology solution that accounts for a user’s unique orientation towards time can be a competitive advantage that allows your product to succeed.

Chronemics in Communication

Time is an important non-verbal cue that factors heavily into communication, particularly in the world of business.

A number of studies have been conducted on the chronemics of technology communication within business. For example, studies have taken large amounts of aggregated email data from big companies and analyzed both the level of response and response times and of individual entities.

These studies have shown that the organizational structure can be very accurately predicted by creating a hierarchy of responsiveness, placing most responsive entities at the bottom of the organization, and least responsive entities at the top.

The predictive power of these chronemic models could be used in designing future communication technology to account for the expected responsiveness of people that are communicating, based on their position in an organization.

Chronemics and Time Management

Learn how to read the Julian dates and other old calendars.
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Chronemics also factors heavily in the world of time management. While many technology solutions have aimed at tackling time management in a uniform way, chronemics has shown that there is actually wide variation among different cultures around a time outlook.

Many North American and Western cultures are considered to be “monochronic,” that is, focused on the sequential completion of tasks, very structured and time conscious. However, other cultures, including many in Latin America and Asia, are considered “polychronic.” These cultures are less focused on accounting for individual measures of time but are more focused on tradition, relationships, and freedom.

Multitasking vs. Single Focus in Tech Design

These cultural influences can play an important role when designing a piece of technology for a specific user base.

Monochronic cultures may value tools that increase focus, reduce distraction, and allow adherence to a structured, defined schedule. Polychronic cultures, however, may value tools that allow for a wider, more multitasking view of work. Tools that provide dashboard views or relationship statuses may allow polychronic workers the freedom to switch between tasks given the shifting nature of relationships and concerns that may happen over the course of a day.

The design of technology solutions is becoming more complex and nuanced. We currently have software and hardware that meets many of the basic needs of users. The truly innovative technology of the future will feature design that truly understands the subtleties of human behavior, and fits in with the lives of users in intuitive ways.

The best tech designers are already looking to broader areas of psychology and cultural study to find ways to make technology smarter and more useful. One such area is the anthropological study of chronemics.

Chronemics as a Design Advantage

The concepts mentioned here are just a few of the many ways that the field of chronemics intersects with the world of technology. For any designer or developer looking to work with technology that will deal with the varied forms of time in communication, an understanding of chronemics can potentially be used to a great advantage.

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