Is Punctuality a Virtue or a Vice?
How Mobile Phones and Social Media Are Changing Our Relationship to Time
Posted June 19, 2012
“The problem with being punctual is that there’s nobody there to appreciate it.” – Franklin P. Jones
You’re on your way out of the office to meet a friend for lunch when a co-worker stops you and asks for some help. You stop to help her, when you remember your manners, pull out your phone, and type an SMS message to your lunch companion:
“Running ten minutes late. Order an appetizer. My treat.”
It may seem a small thing, being late for an appointment, but it’s not an anomaly is it? It’s more and more appointments that come with a last minute call or a text or an email announcing a late arrival or a change of plan. And if it’s not you sending those texts, you’re probably on the receiving end of them.
Why are we taking greater and greater liberties with the ideal of punctuality? One reason is clear: because we can. The little rectangular devices in our pockets—our mobile phones— have given us near telepathic powers to stay in touch with one another as we hurtle through the contingencies in life. The result of being able to instantly communicate “sorry, running late” at any time allows a looser attitude towards being on time.
This looseness—recklessness, some would say—would have seemed unconscionable a few years ago. Punctuality was an unquestioned cultural value that held modern society together (“Punctuality is the soul of business,” as one writer put it), the building block of social, business and educational life. This shift in attitudes towards time and how we interact with it is a big deal, but it highlights a cultural division that is over a century old.
The ethnographer Edward Teller observed in the 1960s that cultures around the world have one of two very different modes of interacting with time. The first is the kind we’re so accustomed to—time as a resource to be carefully managed. This is what Teller called “monochronic time,” which is something to be saved and spent, because we don’t want to use it up, especially on frivolous activities. Industrial societies are naturally focused on organizing people around efficiency, and moving them from one task to another in a carefully engineered sequence. Train timetables, clocking in for work, appointment books are all artifacts of monochromic time and the cultures that employ it.
The second mode, the default of many balmy Latin and Mediterranean cultures, is "polychronic time." It means engaging in multiple activities at once, sustaining a deep involvement in each other’s lives. Polychronic time is fluid, multi-tasking is a given, and personal relationships trump transactions. As a result, work progress is often unpredictable.
In this mode being “on time” is less important than being immersed in what they’re doing. Polychronic time prioritizes context over process, and makes it difficult for people to abruptly end conversations in mid-stream when the clock strikes the hour.
In monochronic societies like the U.S. we've tended to frown on people living in the polychronic mode (notable exceptions include Hawaii, whose residents famously practice “Aloha Time”). After all, the well-oiled machinery of industrial life would break down if we let people show up whenever they wanted. It is only the artist that we except from this rule, accepting that they'll jump from activity to activity in “erratic” ways, and allowing a degree of “flakiness,” two qualities we abhor in anyone hoping to be taken seriously in the professional world.
Yet we are living through a remarkable transformation in this attitude. Social media and mobile phones are creating a strong tidal pull towards the polychronic behaviors. Our phones are always on, interrupting us with notifications about what others are doing and saying. This forces us to embrace more multi-tasking, more fluidity in our daily activities. We’re able to be more involved in the nitty gritty of each other’s lives, which on the one hand is a distraction from our scheduled tasks but on the other hand the very means to adjust to the disruption.
These many small changes all add up to a potentially massive shift in how we engage with time itself.