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What is Kairos?

Published
Luke Leighfield
Luke Leighfield
Content Writer

In Ancient Greek, the word kairos (pronounced 'KAI-ros') means 'time' – but not just any time. It's about timeliness: the special moment when it's the opportune time to say or do a particular thing.

In this post, we'll explain how you can recognise when it's the appointed time to say something. And how to know when a statement's perfect for a particular situation.

Understanding kairos

The concept of kairos is pretty complex. It's not a simple device or technique, like ethos, pathos or logos. Instead, kairos depends on context.

Calling something 'kairotic' is also subjective, like beauty. So what may be the 'right moment' for one person could be totally wrong for someone else.

In stories, people employ kairos to create a decisive moment – trying to capture in words what will be immediately applicable, appropriate, and engaging for a particular audience.

Kairos is timeliness, appropriateness, decorum, symmetry, balance – being aware of the rhetorical situation. It's about crafting serendipity, like when the sun comes out at the end of a romantic comedy after all the conflicts are resolved. It's delicate, like a flower. Naw.

Kairos vs. chronos

Kairos and chronos are both Ancient Greek words that literally mean 'time.' But kairos doesn't mean time in the same way that we use it in contemporary English.

  • Kairos represents a kind of 'qualitative' time, as in 'the right time'. It means taking advantage of or even creating a perfect moment to deliver a particular message.

  • Chronos represents a kind of 'quantitative' time, as in, “What time is it?” or “Will we have enough time?”

"Kairos is a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved." – E. C. White, Kaironomia

Kairos in classical rhetoric

Waaay back in olden times, specifically Ancient Greece, both of the two main schools of thought used kairos in the field of rhetoric.

The Sophists

In the red corner, you have the Sophists. They thought it was crucial for rhetors (people who teach rhetoric) to adapt to, and take advantage of, changing circumstances.

Sophism approached rhetoric as an art form, and members of the school would travel around Greece teaching citizens about the art of rhetoric and successful discourse.

John Poulakos defines rhetoric from a Sophistic perspective like this:

"Rhetoric is the art which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible"

Aristotle, Plato, and co.

In the blue corner, you have the opposition, led by people like Aristotle and Plato. They saw Sophistic rhetoric as a tool used to manipulate others and criticized those who taught it.

While Aristotle and his pals didn't dig the Sophistic approach, they did discuss the importance of kairos in their teachings. Aristotle believed that each rhetorical situation was different, so you needed to apply different rhetorical devices at different times.

One of the most well-known parts of Aristotle's Rhetoric is when he discusses the roles of pathos, ethos, and logos. Aristotle ties kairos to these concepts, claiming that there are times in each rhetorical situation when you need to use one device over another.


Kairos today

Kairos has been hot topic in various disciplines for a long time. But the importance of kairos in writing and new media has been a big source of debate over the last few decades.

Nowadays, in modern rhetoric, the definition of kairos is making exactly the right statement at exactly the right moment.

Smart cookie James Kinneavy is largely credited with reintroducing the importance of kairos into the discipline of Rhetoric and Composition – and, therefore, composition studies.

Kinneavy says kairos is:

“The appropriateness of the discourse to the particular circumstances of the time, place, speaker, and audience involved"

Other scholars – Sheridan, Michel, and Ridolfo – say that:

“Kairos refers to a struggle, at the point of rhetorical intervention, between situational factors”

Taken together, the two definitions highlight just how tricky it is to define kairos. It's dynamic, not static. It's constantly shifting. And that's why it's so dang hard to get kairos right.

Why kairos matters

If you're trying to deliver a message to an audience, you need to think deeply about those people. What do they think about this issue? How are they likely to respond to your message?

The concept of kairos is vital when crafting your message. Your audience is made of real people who live in a certain place and time. That place and time affects the way they receive your message, so it's important to dwell on it and get it right.

How to use kairos

There are no hard and fast rules for using kairos in your narrative. You need to consider your audience, the current moment that you're living in, and what message your audience needs at that exact time.

Here are some helpful pointers for delivering the right message at the right moment:

  1. Create an important moment in your story
  2. Consider how your audience will feel about this moment
  3. Understand the times you’re living in and how this affects the moment
  4. Create a meaningful message about that particular moment

Examples of kairos onscreen

Her

Released in 2013, the movie Her came at exactly the right moment. It deals with themes like isolation, artificial intelligence, and the artificiality of life in a digital world. At the same time, smartphones were taking over the world, and people were starting to use artificial intelligence, like Siri.

Her asks how this technology might affect our minds and societies, at a time when people were becoming more aware of the higher rates of depression and loneliness in our society. Its timeliness no doubt helped the film to resonate with so many people – and clinch a few awards, too.

Selma

Arriving at the same time as a huge social movement was sweeping the USA, Selma is extremely kairotic. It tells the story of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, tieing into modern conversations about protest and racial injustice at the exact right moment.

Kairos is a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action – which sums up Martin Luther King's work, and the release of Selma, perfectly.

Nike

The start of 2020 was a time of isolation and division thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic – as well as police brutality and racial injustice in the USA leading to more Black Lives Matter protests.

Which meant that Nike was up against severe time constraints if it wanted its 'You Can't Stop Us' campaign to land at the opportune moment. Thankfully, it released this technically mind-blowing ad – with themes of unity, resilience, and triumph over the odds – at the opportune moment.

Pizza Hut

With this advert, Pizza Hut cooked up a kairotic moment to create a sense of urgency. While its pizza is available all the time, this particular flavour was only available for two weeks – meaning that viewers had to act now (!!!) or miss out.

Like its pizza, the message is a little cheesy. But there's a reason why these types of ads appear so often – they work. And it's all thanks to kairos.

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