Tom Bruneau. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications, 2009.

Chronemics is the study of the concepts and processes of human temporality, or connections with time, as they are bound to human communication interactions. Chronemics concerns the study and uses of various kinds of objective time involved in our daily timing and habits associated with our formal and informal obligations. However, chronemics also concerns subjective or personal temporalities. Combinations of subjective and objective time concern our own everyday personal time. It is this personal time, a combination of technical timekeeping and personal times and tempos, that is centrally and highly related to human communication. This entry is intended to explain how human temporalities comprise a nonverbal chronemics of human behaviors.

Chronemics is the newest area of nonverbal communication studies, and this new focus seems to link and bind together, for the first time, all other systems of nonverbal communication. All forms of nonverbal communication messages have their own temporalities, beginnings and endings, startings and stoppings, zeros and ones, befores and afters, faster and slower, and so forth. Verbal messages, too, have major temporal features. We could not possibly communicate without human temporality.

Chronemics should provide for a more dynamic study of emotional interactions between people. We are Homo temp or alls; we all have a complex temporal identity, a composite of personal levels of time experiencing, to be discussed later in this entry. Chronemic studies developed from interdisciplinary time literature and research reports in biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

Objective Time

Objective time concerns behaviors linked to our clocks, timekeeping devices, and calendars. These all deal with our comings and goings, the organization of communication events, and timing our everyday pursuits. Objective time concerns how most people reference time, times, and rates of change. Human attempts to develop timekeeping have been occurring for thousands of years. Marshall McLuhan noted that timekeeping devices are media that transform tasks and create new work and wealth by accelerating the pace of human associations or communication events. Most people do not understand that these devices have not dropped out of the sky; they developed from assumptions made long ago. The single most persistent and ongoing diffusion of innovation continuing its spread on a global scale is objective time.

Clock time was developed for use to standardize needed or valued shared experience, to regularize our meetings, our hellos and goodbyes, our work schedules, our everyday comings and goings. The first characteristic of a developed society is its temporal regularity. Without temporal signposts or objective time markers, our communication meetings would be far less in number. Without calendrical markers, days, dates, weeks, months, and years, made up of seconds, minutes, hours, and other objective markers or intervals, our lives would be very different. We often become somewhat objective in our own repetitive actions, routines, habits, and various forms of redundancies. Most of us are creatures of routine and regularity in our habitual daily schedules. We often seem to create objective time pacers to manage our daily behaviors.

Timing devices were created to produce lineally assumed equal intervals in a cyclic sequentiality. This helps people regularize and coordinate divergent personal and sociocultural time, timings, tempos, and rhythms, discussed later. Communication studies have been anchored in an objective time behaviorism that often neglects relativity theory and variable kinds of time. Many people reluctantly perform daily what Lawrence Wright has called a chronarchy, or the thoughtless regimentation of people by timekeeping. It should be understood that those who control local clocks control space or proxemics, as well as movements or kinesics though spaces. We develop many kinds of timetables and schedules in our social and work groups. Most of them have to do with expectancies, due dates, repeat activities, and how we order and structure our communication contacts.

Scientific and Technological Time

Scientific time and technological time are precise kinds of objective time. Unlike subjective or personal time, scientific and technological time, timing, and tempo concern consistent measures reflected in some kind of clock time. Unitizations of processes are critical for any kind of scientific or technological time. Science could not exist without an objective time, clocks, calendars, and other structural features that equally mark off assumed temporal intervals. Seriality and unitized sequentiality are important tools for scientific investigations. More convenient and faster contact speeds seem to parallel more and faster communication contacts. Communication between people is becoming more and more immediate and simultaneous; personally carried media are bringing people into immediate 24/7 contacts not possible before.

Technological time concerns our many kinds of media and their central forms. We often refer to media as channels of communication, not understanding that the brain is the channel of all other media channels. Today’s communication media increase exposure to others. Objective time usage is balanced with subjective or personal time use.

Subjective or Personal Time

Genetic and Biological Time

Human genetics concerns a time and tempo, or what has been described as cbronogenetics. Chronogenetic studies have shown that every gene has a timing structure, with control clocks that supply stabilities and transient clocks that indicate changes. Genetic temporalities interact with any infant’s basal endocrinic and metabolic capacities and potentialities. Each of us has a unique biological time because we have inherited biological time from our ancestors. Genetic time concerns the study of the interactions of states and processes of human genes. States are stabilities in the chronogenetic codes, while processes concern transiences or changes in the genetic codes. The stabilities of a gene are called ergons, and the transiences or changes of a gene are called chronons. The study of biostationarity (stabilities) and bioperiodicity (rhythmicities) is called chronobiology. It is important to understand that genetic timing is what sets our biological clocks and explains why people seem to have widely ranging variations or differences in their biological tempos. Biological variations are always present, but often unconsciously so, and affect our communication processing as senders and receivers of communication throughout our lives.

Biological time involves biological rate variations or biological rhythms, biological drives, and the management of our biologic need tensions. The study of biological time began in 1937, when Pierre Lecomte du Nouy published his book Biological Time. While some communication scholars have recently introduced the idea of a communibiology, it should be understood that sociobiology studies are often communication based and have been developing for many decades.

If two people’s biological processes are very different, their interactive attention and perceptions become affected. We can then become dysrhythmic in our interactions. When our hormonal, metabolic, and biological rhythms are out of sync during interactions, we personally have problems communicating with others. Whenever biological rhythms, especially daily or circadian rhythms, are involved in mutual contacts, the chances are that we are experiencing communicative entrainment. Entrainment, or attempting to become synchronized in interactions between people, is extremely important because it can often result in many communication difficulties or failures.

Our developmental processes and aging are connected to our genetic and biological clocks. The Law of Janet was described by Josef Holubar in his work The Sense of Time: An Electro-physiological Study of Its Mechanisms in Man. This law states that the length of a subjective duration of a sensation is inversely proportional to the length of life already lived. H. Hoagland, in his essay “Some Biochemical Considerations of Time,” concurs in explaining that the slowing of oxygen consumption in the brain makes time appear to pass faster and faster as one ages, and in children rich in brain oxygen, time passes more slowly.

In short, time seems to crawl when we are young children and appears to rapidly fly when we get older. Time estimations are affected. The amount of oxygen to the cerebral cortex is very high in early developmental stages but decreases as we age and brain temperature drops. Our biological clocks slow down, and clock time seems to speed up as we increasingly age. Also, the acuity of all our sensory systems deteriorates.

Many pharmacological and psychotropic drugs and substances that are ingested in every sociocultural collective affect biological tempos and time estimates. Both illegal and medicinal drugs are often psychotropic stimulants or tranquilizers, and they affect our biological tempos. We also can be hyperaroused or hypoaroused naturally, being alert or not, being active or passive, being extroverted or introverted, and so forth, depending on our inherited biological time. Biological time periodicities help us to regularize and set the characteristics of our perceptual time, timing, and tempos.

Perceptual Time

Perceptual time concerns our processing of nonverbal cues or signals. Signalic, or perceptual, communication concerns how we induct the communication of others into our brains. This kind of communication is often called semiotics, or how we induct the nonverbal communication signals generated in our various natural, physical, technic, and social environments into our brains. This inducting-of-information process was proposed by Paul Fraisse long ago and concerns rhythmic induction. This requires us to see the world not as objects or spaces, as in objectivity, but as full of rhythmic waves and energy fields of tremendous complexity. We process light waves (seeing), sound waves (hearing), pressure waves (touching), molecular waves (smelling), biochemical waves (tasting), and other rhythmic inputs of stimuli. These waves are converted and channeled in sensory-specific ways into signalic impulses to our brains. The information is converted again when the signals are slowed and the information is spread in thermodynamic lakes of formation within, or information. These lakes of expanding and contracting energy fields are called holoscapes or holograms in holonomic brain theory.

Information that we have already stored in the main cortex of our brains, or old information, is called déjà vu (already seen) information. Our brains usually do not process much of this kind of information as it already represents our current, automatic, and familiar realities. When there is new information, it is called jamais vu information (never seen, new, novelty). The hippocampus of the human brain acts as a mapping function to screen out déjà vu formations and/or select jamais vu, incoming semiotics for processing. In a top-down fashion, we project our cortical holoscapes, or internal formations, on incoming stimuli, called bottom-up processes. Information processing is recursive and cyclic rather than a simple, in-or-out, linear process, as in older stimulus-response models of human communication. Information processing is an in-and-out-simultaneous process. We project these internal formations on what is received through the senses more and more as we age. This is due to the accumulation of more and more brain memories and the increasing development of the top-down brain axis, discussed later. This projection on receptions is called semiosis, or perceptual time.

When we infer or intend meanings, we are dealing with a psychology of time, not a perceptual time. Meanings are not directly transmitted; only signals or nonverbal messages, perceptual times, timings, and tempos are transmitted. When the nonverbal or signalic world of messages is interpreted and made representable, we are then concerned with meanings and psychological time.

Psychological Time

Psychological time concerns both objective and subjective temporalities, depending on what kinds or modes of consciousness are operative. The human brain not only concerns biological and chemical codes, semiotic or nonverbal communication; it also and basically concerns memories (what we call the past), attention and perception (the present), and anticipation/expectation (futurity), a time system. The human brain is a temporal organ that extends throughout our bodies and is projected by our senses onto our various environments. Our nowness expands and contacts; time must be variable in order for human brains to function as they do.

Karl Pribram, one of the world’s leading brain experts and founder of holonomic brain theory, has posited three credible kinds of human consciousness. These three kinds of consciousness are related to how psychological time varies: objective consciousness, narrative consciousness, and transcendental consciousness.

Objective consciousness concerns linearities, serialities, sequences, unitizations, logistics, and ordinary or ordinal thinking. It is left-brained timing and sequentiality, connecting parietal lobe objective, reference memories with frontal lobe anticipations and expectations. This brain connection is called the back-front brain axis. Language is objectively ordered linearities and sequentialities. Consequentiality concerns objectively structured goal orientations as to where our objective sequences might lead us.

Narrative consciousness encompasses right-brained, quasi-linear processes: music, aesthetics, stories, poetics, metaphors, plotting, daydreaming, fantasies, and so forth. It concerns human emotions and feelings, as well as the practice of intuitive kinds of empathy, or “feeling into another,” or interactions between the objective brain (left hemisphere) and the subjective brain (right hemisphere). This brain connection is called the left-right axis. Edward Hall’s distinction between monochronic and polychronic time differences seems to be related to this objective-narrative difference. Hall’s conclusion was that monochronic time concerns what is here called objective consciousness, and polychronic time concerns the functions of narrative consciousness. Hall was advocating a comparative chronemics to study sociocultural time differences and not merely talking about doing one “thing” at a time as opposed to multitasking.

Transcendental consciousness concerns nonlinear brain processes, including contemplation and meditational states, in which our everyday realities, our objective consciousness, is blocked. Any kind of linear or straight-lined sequential information disappears. We often have no recollection or remembrance of our transcendental journeys. However, many times, upon reentering our objective or everyday consciousness, we are puzzled as to where we have been. Sometimes we can experience insights, new ideas, and uplifting spirituality. Certain individuals and their social groups operate with different systems of psychological time, making for problems during sociocultural interactions.

Sociocultural Time

The manner in which a social group develops a temporal identity concerns how individuals are expected to act and behave in interactions with others. Some sociocultural groupings are focused on a past orientation, some are more present oriented, and some are future oriented. Supposedly, more developed groups are more involved in linear progression and future oriented. Most organizational and work groups of people are purposively bound to objective time, as progress and production are their main concerns. There are groups that are much more into narrative time than Western societies are. Much of the global population is anchored in a narrative time and not an objective temporality. Objective time, when introduced into many narrative-time groupings within nations, tends to significantly alter their cultural temporalities, changing the culture. It is important for diffusion-of-innovation and intercultural-communication scholars to recognize their own objective-time biases. Some sociocultural groupings, too, are primarily concerned with the spiritual and nonlinear aspects of transcendental consciousness. The rhythms of particular natural environments and particular people-built environments and the communication rhythms in various social environments are all involved in sociocultural time.

The Advent of Chronemics

A number of scholars are responsible for the early development of time and communication studies before the word chronemics was coined. George H. Mead was a leading developer of the study of human acts and presentness. Harold Innis, a Canadian communicologist, produced a work entitled Changing Concepts of Time in 1952. Also in 1952, Edward T. Hall, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, wrote an early work entitled The Process of Change. Hall was to write periodically about time and sociocultural relations over the next four decades. Marshall McLuhan, in several works, discussed time and human communication. Kenneth Burke, a rhetorical scholar, produced two early books, A Grammar of Motives in 1945 and Permanence and Change in 1965. Many other scholars in biology, anthropology, psychology, and sociology wrote about time and human relations.

The actual term chronemics was coined in 1972 by Fernando Poyatos, a Canadian linguist and semiotician. Poyatos, in dealing with the communication system of the speaker-actor, briefly discussed a chronemics that concerned conceptions and the handling of time as a biopsychological and cultural element of social interactions. Tom Bruneau developed the first article on time and nonverbal communication in 1974 and attempted to define a chronemics and outline its characteristics in 1977. Since these early works, a number of texts on nonverbal communication have increased commentary about chronemics.

Judee Burgoon, a researcher and theorist in nonverbal communication, outlined a new theory of communication concerning futurity, Expectancy Violations Theory, in 1978. In 1983, Edward T. Hall attempted to describe time as The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. Allen Merriam, in 1983, launched one of the first comparative chronemics studies, comparing Iranian-American differences in international communication. His work stands as a model that can be used to compare cultural time perspectives. The psychological theory of planned behavior has been introduced in communication studies in the area of organizing persuasion tactics.

The works of Joseph McGrath and Janice Kelly were important to the social psychology of time and to a communicatively based temporality. The writings of Eviatar Zerubavel on hidden rhythms and patterns of time in organizational communication are important. The research of John Honeycutt did much to develop the idea of imagined interactions in intrapersonal communication, with some futurity perspectives. Another perspective on futurity is the idea of the consequentiality of communication. Of course, all communication has some kind of an anticipated, expected, or eventual result, however fleeting. In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in communication publications dealing with strategic planning. A model of organizational time has been developed in an article by Dawna Ballard, “The Experience of Time at Work.”

Chronemic studies need to include more interdisciplinary perspectives in their future developments.