Chronemics for Writers

is the study of how time is used in communication, including how we use time to signal social status, power, and intimacy. Here are some examples of the kinds of events and time signatures that may be of interest to chronemics.

What is time, and how do we talk about it? Aristotle defines time as “the calculable measure of motion with respect to before and afterness.” 

In the English language, an abundance of expressions exists to talk about time, phrasal verbs being among the most numerous. Their formulas consist of a few words in a string comprising a verb and particle, e.g., “We ran out of time, so we scheduled a follow-up meeting.” These phrasal verbs are tricky to memorize for second language learners of English dialects; a missing, stray, or incorrect element can throw off the meaning and result in a humorous or harmful gaffe, and at the least, charming miscommunication, as in “We ran up to time, so we scheduled a follow-up meeting.” 

Native speakers of English may not think about using phrasal verbs consciously, yet they are everywhere we speak. Staying with the example of time, we: make, use, and put in time; have it to spare and also run out of it; carve it out; spend, waste, and save it; take a time out; and take time off. More poetically, we set it aside, and idle, while, and fritter it away. Time is money. It flies, and it heals all wounds.

Chronemics however, focus on what we are saying by what we are doing. Are we late, unresponsive, interrupters? What does that say about a character? It is a bit like body language, only for time. 

Time Signatures

  • Punctuality: Punctuality is the degree to which individuals arrive at appointments or meetings on time. In some cultures, punctuality is highly valued and is seen as a sign of respect and professionalism. In other cultures, being a few minutes late is considered acceptable or even expected.
  • Waiting time: Waiting time refers to the amount of time someone spends waiting for something, such as a meeting to start or a service to be provided. The amount of time someone is willing to wait can convey social status or power. For example, in some cultures, it is considered a sign of status to keep others waiting, while in other cultures, being on time is seen as a sign of respect.
  • Response time: Response time refers to how quickly someone responds to a message or request. In some contexts, a quick response is seen as a sign of attentiveness and respect, while in other contexts, taking time to respond may be seen as a sign of thoughtfulness or consideration.
  • Talk time: Talk time refers to how long someone speaks during a conversation. In some cultures, it is considered polite to let others speak more, while in other cultures, speaking at length is a sign of confidence and expertise.
  • Silence: Silence can also be a time signature of interest to chronemics. In some cultures, silence is considered a sign of respect or thoughtfulness, while in other cultures, silence may be seen as awkward or uncomfortable.
  • Response time to emails or text messages:
    How quickly someone responds to an email or text message can convey their level of interest, urgency, or respect for the sender.
  • Duration of eye contact: Eye contact can convey interest, attention, and respect, but the appropriate duration of eye contact can vary across cultures and situations.
  • Duration of greetings: The length of a greeting, such as a handshake or hug, can convey social status, intimacy, and respect.
  • Time to complete tasks: The time it takes to complete a task or meet a deadline can convey competency, efficiency, and professionalism.
  • Time spent on small talk: The amount of time spent on small talk before getting to the main point of a conversation can convey interest, warmth, and rapport.
  • Interruption time: The time it takes for someone to interrupt another person during a conversation can convey assertiveness, dominance, and confidence.
  • Response time to invitations: How quickly someone responds to an invitation to a social event can convey their level of interest and respect for the host.
  • Length of pauses during speech: The length of pauses between words or sentences can convey hesitation, thoughtfulness, and confidence.
  • Time spent eating meals: The length of time spent eating a meal can convey social norms, such as the importance of shared meals and leisure time.
  • Length of meetings: The length of a meeting can convey the importance, urgency, and respect for the topic or participants.

In general, different time signatures can convey different meanings depending on the culture and context. For example, being punctual may be highly valued in some cultures, while in others, arriving a few minutes late may be seen as more acceptable. Understanding these cultural differences in the use of time can help improve cross-cultural communication and avoid misunderstandings.

So what does all that mean to a fiction writer? Well, in the culture of the United States, punctuality has generally been viewed as an indication of respect for others' time and an essential component of professionalism.

In the United States, being on time for appointments, meetings, and other events is highly valued and is often considered a sign of reliability, responsibility, and competence. Lateness or tardiness, on the other hand, is generally viewed as disrespectful and can be perceived as a lack of consideration for others.

There countries who place less emphasis on punctuality than the US, Germany, or Switzerland. Mexico, and Spain along with Brazil have, by comparison, a much softer view of time and adherence. 

With that all said, this is a valuable asset for a writer on many different levels. Showing someone late for a meeting in the US, can and should give an impression of being laxed. Perhaps not to the point of morally laxed, but professionally, yes. We can bolster this effect by having someone comment on the event. It is a good tool for 'show don't tell.

Short intervals before interrupting someone shows a lack of concern for what others are thinking, as well as demonstrating a lack of patience. 

Combining these is where we find gold, because as we are describing our character using 'show' terms like these from Chronemics, the Reader is feeling these events, through internal tension, and emersion. Combinations allow for deeper understanding and nuance with our character. 

These and others are also wonderful for demonstrating contrasts between characters. You can show disharmony between them by putting time signatures at odds between them. 

As always, have fun.

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