Killing time has never been easier, with smartphone settings that feed constant data and the average smartphone user checking it 85 times a day. But what exactly is being killed? How do we describe these moments lost?
One of the first books I read for this blog introduced me to the concepts of chronos and kairos timing. The book was Talk and Social Theory: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life by Frederick Erickson. Yes, it is an academic work, but with some charmingly concrete moments. Anyone who’s seen a gunner in a law-school classroom will understand a term coined by the conversational turn-taking analysts: “turn shark.”
Erickson also explored the concept of chronos and kairos timing in communication study. Chronos (or kronos) is basically clock or calendar time. Chronos time is measured in equal bits and sequenced perfectly and inexorably one after the other. In contrast kairos timing is about “the opportune time” or “the moment of opportunity.”
Kairos is important to conversation study because mutual timing is what allows people to make sense together in conversations. Kairos moments in conversations are those where the conversation shifts, someone begins to contribute, a person speaking notices someone else shifting their gaze and notices the need for a conversation pause, and so on. Because conversations aren’t defined by automated turn-taking and timed exchanges, communications scholars find multiple kairos moments in conversational analysis:
Kairos is the time of tactical appropriateness, of shifting priorities and objects of attention from one qualitatitvely differing moment to the next….It is a brief strip of right time, marked at its beginning and ending by turning points.
Or, more poetically:
In kairos time there are kinds of time that are apples and others that are oranges. There is a time when rain will fall from a cloud, a time to attack the enemy in battle, a time to negotiate a truce, a point that is qualitatively different in time from the time in kronos just before.
Kairos can be a blessing or a weapon, according to Erickson, who summarizes meticulous moment-by-moment studies of various conversational settings, finding kairos moments of opportunity and of subtle and not-so-subtle power exchanges. A teacher tries to manage a group of students where a shy student continually loses her turn to a “turn shark” who incessantly interrupts. A medical intern and senior supervisor talk about an overdosed patient, with the supervisor offers a smile while implying the intern (who is African-American) might know something about buying illegal drugs. Using “hyperformality,” the intern refocuses the conversation with clinical language about the patient. These conversational studies were done years ago in the era of gas shortages and the Vietnam draft, but connections to today’s topics of gender-based “manterruptions,” cultural competence, implicit bias, and microaggressions cannot be missed.
And for those kairos moments that are not a weapon but a potential blessing, the fact is they can be squandered. In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle details the effects of smartphones on in-person conversations:
The mere presence of a phone signals that your attention is divided, even if you don’t intend it to be. It will limit the conversation in many ways: how you’ll listen, what will be discussed, the degree of connection you’ll feel.
Urban Dictionary now includes a definition of the common, meme-friendly phrase “Wait, what?”:
“[a] phrase used to back the conversation up when you realize you weren’t listening.”
(See Resolve to Use Your Device as a Tool—and to Resist Being Tooled by It, Jack Pringle’s guest post here last week.)
Kairos is a useful idea not just for individual conversations, but also for effective storytelling and understanding broader social situations. In his book Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates, legal writing expert Ross Guberman implicitly criticizes chronos timing as a storytelling method:
Few things are duller than a paragraph stuffed with dates.
Instead, he shares a variety of techniques for connecting factual details into a series of meaningful moments. Although not using the terms chronos and kairos, Guberman shows how to play upon a reader’s conception of kairos, in the sense of “the right moment.” His examples show how a fact statement can suggest that certain events happened too slowly or too quickly—or that they shouldn’t have happened at all.
Explicitly applying the kairos idea to advocacy and litigation strategy, Professor Linda Berger explored kairos in Creating Kairos at the Supreme Court: Shelby County, Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, and the Judicial Construction of Right Moments. Berger uses her deep knowledge of rhetorical theory to provide context:
Through their use of two words for time, chronos and kairos, the Greeks were able to view history as a grid of connected events spread across a landscape punctuated by hills and valleys. In chronos, the timekeeper-observer constructs a linear, measurable, quantitative accounting of what happened. In kairos, the participant-teller forms a more qualitative history by shaping individual moments into crises and turning points. From a rhetorical perspective, chronos is more closely allied with the narrative accounting for—how long? what next?—while kairos is the more metaphorical imagining as—at what point? in what space?
The end of any year is an opportunity to make a kairos moment—and the end of this particular year brings to mind thoughts of a crisis or turning point. Berger shows that kairos moments are not passively experienced as one watches a ticking stopwatch measuring off equal seconds and minutes. Kairos moments are sensed and recognized, but they are also shaped. In rhetorical terms, Berger tells us, “kairos presumes that the author will intervene in history’s causal chain.”
So it’s the end of a year. It’s the end of 2016 specifically. It’s a moment of kairos time, or at least it could be—personally, professionally, socially, politically. For 2017, I propose a resolution: let’s not kill time.