A matter of time: On chronemics as a nonverbal signal

We’re used to thinking of a conversation as an exchange of verbal utterances between two interlocutors or more. Actually, there is more than that. There’s a whole dimension of nonverbal aspects in a discourse between people. Chronemics is one of them, a hidden but prominent element of dialogues, referring to the perception, usage, and structure of time in the interaction.

After all, communication is a time-bound activity. Time acts as a fundamental organizing principle for these activities. We are spending quality time with our friends, we are running out of time for a deadline at work, we attempt to be on time for appointments, and so on.

Chronemics effect our communication in the sense that it holds a valuable meaning for the discourse. Taking a pause before replaying means that a crucial statement is coming up. A long silence in the middle of the discourse entails a nervous and embarrassing atmosphere.

Moreover, chronemics signals social status in a given interaction. It is all actually a matter of responsiveness, whether one has the freedom of extending his response time or is bound to reply instantly. Talking rapidly with hesitant pauses sets a neurotic or nervous mood to the speaker, indicating a subordinate relation to the other interlocutors, whereas on the contrary, a slow speech pace sets a deliberate and calm quality, and implicates a high competence and a dominant position.

Chronemics is an exceptional nonverbal cue with the fact that it is valid not only on a face-to-face interaction or even not solely vocal. Chronemics is manifested in written communication as well. Given an email from a prospect, the dealmaker might be manipulating his response time in order to increase or retain his competence.

Chronemics has the power to delineate and preserve the social map. For example, a boss can be late for a meeting but not his subordinates. Running a pitching presentation for investors may also presuppose extra waiting for them, due to display of power. It is even fashionable to be late to a party. On the other hand, if you are missing the upper hand, you might not want to take your time. One must not arrive at a job interview five minutes late, inasmuch as you probably won’t get the job. To sum up, signaling with organizing time and responsiveness has the power of negotiation of social competence. 

Tech Entrepreneur, co-founder of SubStrata Technologies

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