Most nonverbal communication textbooks talk about time under three main headings:
- psychological time, referring to one’s orientation to past, present, or future
- biological time, referring to one’s body rhythms as well as preferences for early or late in the day activities
- cultural time, referring largely to the differences in the ways different cultures treat time, whether, for example, members do one thing at a time (monochronic cultures) or a variety of things (polychronic cultures) and the social clock, the time one’s culture considers appropriate for certain rites and rituals, for example, completing college, getting married, or moving out of your parents’ house
The stimulus for this actually comes from the brief discussion of Burgoon, Guerrero, and Floyd (2010) in which they identify punctuality, wait time, lead time, duration, and simultaneity and Andersen and Bowman (1999) who consider waiting-time, talk-time, and work-time in their discussion of time and its relationship to power. To these we add relationship time, synchronicity-asynchronicity and response time, the last two of which have taken on added importance due to the frequency with which we communicate via some kind of computer connection. This post, then, is designed to re-balance the little space given to these topics in our textbooks, to add a few more dimensions, to fill in examples and implications, and to propose this general heading of Interpersonal Time for concepts we recognize as crucial in all our interpersonal communication encounters.
Punctuality refers to being on time for a variety of occasions—for company meetings, for class, for teacher-student appointments, for a ball game, for a movie or television show, and for completing assignments, to take just a few examples. Some people are always on time or early and others are consistently late, likely a personality difference. But, much of it is learned. If you were taught the values and appropriateness (by example as well as by explicit instruction) then it’s likely that you act in accordance with these “instructions.” One way you learn this is by observing any hierarchy such as those in most organizations. Generally, those of higher status have greater leeway when it comes to punctuality; the boss may be late but the workers need to be on time. The professor may be late for a conference but the student needs to be on time. The Dean or President may be late for a conference but the professor needs to be on time. As a patient you’re expected to be on time though the MD rarely is.
Wait time refers to the amount of time it’s considered appropriate to wait for something or someone. Burgoon, Guerrero, and Floyd relate the practice of college students being required to wait for a late instructor a certain length of time depending on the instructor’s rank, a situation I recall from my own college days. Then, students had to wait a full 30 minutes for a Full Professor but only 10 minutes for an Assistant Professor. This, by the way, was taught to all incoming students during orientation classes and it may still be a practice in some colleges today. Actually, this isn’t uncommon. Police officers, firefighters, and military personnel all follow similar rules—though many are unwritten.Consider some of the messages this type of rule might communicate, for example:
o the time of high ranking people is more important than the time of low ranking people
o the value of a student’s time is relate to the rank of the instructor
o rank is crucial to all of life’s relationships
There are of course factors other than status that figure into this equation. For example, if this was the first time you were meeting face-to-face with someone you’ve communicated with for two years with via a social network and the person was late, you’d probably wait a lot longer than if this were someone you didn’t care about or if you were not looking forward to the meeting.
Wait time can also be used strategically to signal power differences and to dominate the interaction. Just being late and having someone wait for you, communicates that you’re more important—or at least that’s the message many would get from this situation. And since it’s usually the superior who makes the other person wait, the power difference already exists and the wait time just emphasizes it.
Lead time refers to the time needed for making decisions. So, for example you’d expect to ask for a date sometime in advance of the actual date (and this will vary greatly from one culture to another), especially if it’s something like a prom or a major event. You’d expect an invitation for a wedding, for example, to arrive with considerable lead time and you’d expect more lead time if the wedding was in another state or country. Similarly, you’re expected to give an employer a certain amount of time if you quit (and it may well be written in your contract). Employers seem to vary; some will give terminated employees notice and others will usher the fired individual out the door with virtually no lead time.
Duration refers to the length of time that a particular interaction will take. When you go to the doctor or dentist you’re likely given a specific amount of time. If you use a consultant, lawyer, or accountant you may be charged for the length of time you interact and the length of time he or she works on your project. Appropriately enough, the practice is referred to as being “on the clock.” The more important the topic is, generally, the longer the duration. And, not surprisingly, higher status people will ration their time more rigidly than will a lower status person. For example, you’d normally talk for a longer duration with your immediate supervisor than with the President of the company.
Simultaneity refers to whether one thing or many things are done at the same time. Again, status differences emerge here as well. The MD, for example, may take a call during your examination but if would be considered highly unusually if you interrupted the examination with a call. The boss may talk about irrelevant issues during a meeting but a trainee may not. The United States is generally considered a monochronic culture where one thing is done per unit of time as opposed to say some Arab countries in which several things may be done at one meeting. Yet, from just looking around at home, at school, or on the job, we are fast becoming (if we haven’t arrived already) a polychronic culture or, in popular terms, a multitasking culture. We watch television while we text and talk on the phone; we jog while listening to music or an audio book; we eat, text, and watch television all at the same time.
Talk time refers to, for example, who initiates and who terminates a conversation, who talks more, who selects and directs the topics for discussion. As with so many such factors, status plays an important role here. It’s the higher status person who makes the decisions. But, perhaps the best example of high status and talk time is the privilege to interrupt. The person higher up in the hierarchy interrupts lower hierarchical members and not the other way around. It’s a way of saying and meaning: “What I have to say is more important than what you have to say. And since I’m the boss, that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Work time refers to the time schedule of your working life. If you’re a low-level employee, you may have to punch a clock. And you’re probably paid per unit of time, per hour or per day. You need to arrive on time and not leave before the workday is finished. And you need to wait for your lunch break to eat even if you were hungry for the last two hours. If you’re a high-level employee or the boss, you may actually spend more time at work but it will be of your own choosing; you wont’ have to punch a time clock, get permission to arrive late or leave early, and of course you don’t have to wait for your lunch break to eat.
Relationship time is similar to work time but refers to the time one gives or should give to the various people with whom one has a relationship. In our culture, committed romantic couples normally spend a considerable amount of time together and when that time is abbreviated (and considered too little by one of the partners), the relationship may be headed for trouble. Even long-distance relationships normally have relationship time—whether on the phone, through periodic visits, or via Skype. Even at social gatherings you’re expected to devote your time on the basis of the relationships you have with the other members. So, you’re expected to spend more time with close friends (especially if you’ve not seen them for a long time) than with acquaintances. Parents are expected to devote a great deal of time to their children (especially when the children are young) and those who don’t are often criticized by those who do. And adult children are expected to spend less and less time with their parents and more and more time with their romantic partner or friends.In addition to simple amount of time, relationship time demands some measure of “quality time”. Watching television together is probably not as high in quality as having a romantic dinner at the neighborhood bistro where you had your first date. Similarly, conversation with one eye on the television or your smart phone is not as high in quality as conversation with none of these distractions, with direct eye contact and an inclusive, face-to-face, and congruent posture.
Synchronicity and asynchronicity refer to whether the communication takes place in real time—simultaneously, as in face to face communication (this would be synchronous) or whether messages are sent at one time and received at another as in e-mail communication (this would be asychronous). If you want to reduce or lessen the chance for misunderstanding, brainstorm, or get a quick response, then synchronous communication will probably work better. If you wanted to communicate extremely complex messages (for example, reports) that need to be thought about at length or messages that need to be stated with great explicitness (for example, contracts), then ayschronous communication might work better.
Response time refers to the time it takes a person to respond. Response time is observed in both synchronous and asynchronous communication. For example, in face-to-face communication, the response time to some statements and questions must be immediate. There should be very little response lag between one’s person’s “Will you marry me?” and the other’s “Yes.” When the response time is inappropriately long, you may sense some kind of disagreement or lack of certainty. A recent article in The Week (June 1, 2012, p. 12) gives a perfect example of inappropriate response time. An Indian woman filed a motion for divorce from her husband of two months because he took too long to change his relationship status on Facebook to “married.” Her reasoning was that this was an indication that he was probably cheating; the judge didn’t agree and ordered them to have counseling.
You also expect people to respond immediately when you’re in need of support or comfort; if not, you may perceive any eventual support as forced or not genuine. But, response time is also extremely important in asynchronous communication—for example, the time it takes someone to respond to your email or poke or invitation to connect on some social media site will communicate some message. From different response times, you send different messages—messages of interest and concern and immediacy and messages of indicating the opposite. Sometimes our impressions are correct and sometimes not.
All of these types of interpersonal time will be influenced by a variety of factors involved in the interpersonal communication process. Status differences, as already illustrated, will influence significantly the way in which interpersonal time is treated. But, other factors also come into play. For example, your personality will likely influence your punctuality, how long you wait for someone, whether or not you interrupt others, and your response time to invitations. Similarly, the context and purpose of the communication will influence how you’ll treat interpersonal time. For example, if you’re interviewing for the job of a lifetime and the interviewer is late, you’ll no doubt wait. But, if you’re simply meeting someone to walk to classes with and the person is late, you’d be more likely to move on. Also, the relationship between you and the other person or persons, will influence your interpersonal time. For example, if the relationship is an important one to you personally you’ll likely excuse the lack of punctuality. But, if the relationship is only a casual one or perhaps one of hostility, you might become annoyed, increase your dislike for this person who has no consideration for your time, and resolve not to wait any longer.
Andersen, P. A., & Bowman, L. L. (1999). Positions of power: Nonverbal influence in organizational communication. In The nonverbal communication reader: Classic and contemporary readings, 2nd ed. (pp. 317-334), L. K. Guerrero, J. A. DeVito, & M. L. Hecht (Eds.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Burgoon, J., Guerrero, L., & Floyd, K. (2010). Nonverbal communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.