‘African Time’ – Observing polychronic cultures like clockwork

I ran a Twitter poll asking what time most people would turn up to an African party starting at 7pm. 88% of you would turn up 2-4 hours late (well done). Only 1% of you would turn up on time, and just over 10% would arrive within the hour. 

I did this so I could explore what it means to run of ‘African time’. I’m sometimes referred to as ‘the late one in the group’, even though I generally don’t struggle with time keeping. I was fascinated to discover that different cultures run on vastly different notions and value systems associated with time. So maybe, it’s about time that we looked at culture as closely as we do the clock.

African/Black People’s Time aka ‘BPT’

African time (which has its own Wikipedia page) is a cultural tendency in parts of Africa and the Caribbean toward a more relaxed attitude to time. It refers to the leisurely and less rigorously scheduled lifestyle of Black people, in comparison to the clock-bound pace of daily life experienced in Western ethnicities.

The appearance of a lack of punctuality or a lax attitude in Africa isn’t a lack of respect for the time in general. It’s not that black and white, literally. Rather it reflects a different approach and method in managing tasks, events, and interactions. African cultures are often described as polychronic. In short, polychronic cultures are much less focused on the preciseness of accounting for each and every moment, and a polychronic time system is where several things can be done at once, and a more fluid approach is taken to scheduling time.

“I’m not late, I’m polychronic”

Examples of polychronic behaviors include: cooking food while watching television or browsing the internet while sitting in meetings. Polychronicity is in contrast to those who prefer monochronicity (doing one thing at a time). Latin American, African, South Asian, and Arab cultures are more known to use polychronic systems.

African time polychronic culture black peoples time

Polychronic cultures are more focused on the impact of time keeping on relationships, and more likely to be latest for the people they are closest to. Again, it is not about the inability to keep time, but the importance of time keeping given to certain events (and people). 

The concept of African time has become a key topic of self-criticism in modern Africa, and a term used in a pejorative sense around the world about the tardiness of Africans when it comes to keeping appointments, meetings, and events.

However, these criticisms fail to acknowledge that polychronic cultures have a greater sense of the now, and it is this quantum mental presence that allows them to be open to several things at once. Whilst happiness is not directly related to lateness, polychronic cultures have stronger social networks, and a higher sense self satisfaction and actualisation than monochronic cultures. 

Are you a monochronic or polychronic person?

Monochronic people Polychronic people
Do one thing at a time Do many things at once
Concentrate on a task set before them Concentrate on an event happening around them
Consider time commitments (deadlines, schedules) seriously Consider objectives (goals, results) seriously
Are low-context and need information Are high-context and already have information
Are committed to the job and end results Are committed to people and relationships
Dedicate themselves to plans Change plans often and easily
Are more concerned with privacy and individual ownership Are more concerned with community and shared connections
Emphasize prompt time recognition, regardless of relationship or circumstances Emphasize response based on nature of relationship and circumstances
Have strong tendency to build temporary, practical relationships Have strong tendency to build lifetime, familial relationships

Thanks for all your tweets from my Twitter poll, you made it so much fun to run!

2 Comments

  1. I literally had no clue there was culture behind it with a definition it makes sense. “polychronic” “polygamist” lol. we need to find out more about our dna x

    • Thank you! I agree. Though I think punctuality is important, we should feel like we are losing at life because we’re 7 minutes late. Many of us [of the Africa diaspora] know how to be more present and in the moment which I regard as WAY more valuable than just being there physically… and on time! Thanks for your read and comment😘

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