A different sense of time

Punctuality is essential when it comes to business and private appointments. The only problem is that the concept of “punctuality” is interpreted differently around the world.

If you arrive at a meeting in Germany or Austria ten minutes early, you can use the time to talk to other participants who have arrived, or get a quick coffee from the machine around the corner. In India, you would probably have all the time in the world to drink this coffee – alone, in a room full of empty chairs. Because being 30 minutes late is not even worth mentioning. This European form of excessive punctuality can have more severe consequences in private life. If you arrive at a private dinner in Delhi or Mumbai on the dot, you may be rewarded with the sight of your host in bathrobe and curlers. Because if the invitation says 8 pm, nobody would dream of appearing at 8 pm, but three-quarters of an hour later at the earliest. In southern Europe, it is also unusual to arrive at an invitation on time. In Japan, on the other hand, punctuality permeates all areas of life, even the railways: If the high-speed Shinkansen train is delayed, passengers are treated to an apology via loudspeaker that is almost as long as the delay itself.

Time is relative
Basically, the world can be divided into two zones: a punctual one and an unpunctual one. People in the punctual zone need a fixed time frame, exact time specifications and strict time management to control processes. This model, which is most suited to central Europeans, is called “monochronic time”. In “polychronic” regions, such as most countries in South America, Africa and Asia, things tend to happen at the same time – but not without conflicting schedules. Even in Singapore, it is wise to confirm appointments. Or reconfirm them and valiantly it when the person you have arranged to meet is not yet there. Maybe because another important appointment has come up at even shorter notice. Sometimes, you don’t have to go far to arrive in a different punctuality zone: Belgian business meetings generally start on time – or they don’t, because everyone has to wait until the very last participant has arrived. And if this person arrives with a fresh cup of coffee in his hand, because he has found the time for a detour to the cafeteria, despite being late, this is not even met with a frown.

On time – sort of
But what do chronically unpunctual cultures do when every minute counts? In Brazil, the expression “English time” is used so that people know they must arrive punctually. In Peru, the “hora exacta” – the “precise time” – is exactly 30 minutes later. This is a kind of double “academic quarter,” which students may be familiar with from university. But as Peruvians also know this, they add a whole half hour to time-critical appointments. Guests then arrive more or less on time – except for the clueless European who has been standing around stupidly for half an hour. It should be possible to learn these times off by heart: India plus 30 minutes, Senegal plus 15 ... almost like an international temperature and weather map. But be careful! Even savvy travelers can get it wrong: “Ok, then I’ll arrive a little bit too late,” they think, and end up insulting their host, who has expected the German, Swiss or Austrian to be punctual – after all that is what they are known for!

Source: CWT Connect Magazine 01/2018