When Being On-Time Means Everything: How Important is Punctuality to Culture?

How does your culture value time?

Are they more often punctual or late?

Do people care?

Time is valued differently across cultures. In some places, like Switzerland or Germany, punctuality is important. Tardiness is unacceptable and often viewed as disrespectful.

In such cultures, daily schedules, goals, and decision-making processes are dictated by time.

Some cultures, on the other hand, don’t stress punctuality. They might be an hour late, a day late, a week late.  And that’s a-okay. Time is not ruled by a schedule, and neither is business.

This can lead to huge headaches in cross-cultural business. When one culture’s concept of time is not the same as your own, how do you deal?

We’ll discuss that over the next few weeks. For now, let’s take a look at why time is viewed differently across cultures.

Finding Cultural Equilibrium

Is our valuation of time deeply engrained in our values? Or is it simply a reaction to others’ tardiness?

A 2002 study on punctuality in culture, entitled, “A Cultural Trait as Equilibrium,” concludes that punctuality is largely reactionary:

“…punctuality may be simply an equilibrium response of individuals to what they expect others to do. The same society can get caught in a punctual equilibrium or a non-punctual equilibrium.”

In other words, individuals of a society may collectively habit-form according to punctuality or tardiness, based on what they expect from their peers. Then this habit becomes a cultural norm.

This study suggests that such habits “could be subject to evolutionary erosion or bolstering.” The researchers consider a society’s punctuality/tardiness norm is both a shared social trait and an individual reaction to our expectations of others, adjusting our behaviors to arrive at equilibrium.

This makes sense. After all, have you ever had a group of friends that were perpetually late and, in knowing that, you found yourself arriving for planned meetups later and later than the set time.

“Fashionably late” is a term for a reason. Who wants to be the first one to arrive, the longest to wait? How unfashionable.

The question is, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did society’s general values about time inform the initial tardiness/punctuality that evolved and became a norm? Or did the values evolve as the norm became more, well, normal?

The Clocks Run On-Time…Literally

While cultural studies tend to delve into the intangible nature of cultural attitudes and values to explain behavior, some behaviors may result from very practical matters.

One interesting theory that developed from a 1980 study on punctuality pattern differences between the United States and Brazil is that Brazilian watches were simply not as reliable, which may have led to less stress on punctuality in Brazilian culture.

When researchers studied various watches in the United States and Brazil, they found evidence to support the theory that “public clocks and personal watches [are] less accurate in Brazil than in the United States.”

An interesting hypothesis, and not a conclusion you’d immediately jump to.

Are Swiss more punctual, because their clocks are notoriously accurate? Or are their clocks notoriously accurate, because they value punctuality?

Do German trains run on time, because their tickers do?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss culture and its relation to time. How it impacts everyday life, communication, orientation, and business relations. Stay tuned.

The Roots of the Baobab: The Invisible Part of Culture

The upper baobab – the above-ground part of culture – is what cultural books and guides often cover.

Pick up any book on the business culture of any single European nation, and you’ll find greatly detailed lists of behaviors, dress, etc. – you know, the visible parts of culture we talked about last week.

But the baobab’s canopy is only part of the magnificent tree of life. Buried below the African soil, the roots branch out into an enormous structure that you cannot see; one that is even more important to cross-cultural integration.

Invisible to the Naked Eye

Just as the roots of the baobab are hidden extensions of the tree of life, the roots of a culture are often hidden too.

But it’s worth digging up the soil to examine these roots in order to understand why certain cultural behaviors exist and how they developed.

If you’re working in a cross-cultural environment and/or immigrating to a foreign land, it’s pretty clear why this understanding is important. It’s only when you understand a culture’s underlying values that you will be able to accept and adapt enough to integrate into the culture.

baobab

The Swiss

For instance, the Swiss are punctual. This is demonstrated in their behavior. This “always on time” mentality is the above-ground baobab – the visible part of culture.

What are the roots – the invisible part?

The Swiss’ values are. The culture’s concept of time is the invisible part. Time is valued in Switzerland, and that valuation is made manifest in the general behaviors of society.

The American

Another example: Americans are self-promoting. They are not often modest about their success, and some often display it or announce it, so that others know just how successful they are.

“Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.” – Donald Trump, March 2011, in an interview with Good Morning America

Self-promotion is one branch of their above-ground baobab, the visible part of their culture.

And the invisible part?

Individuality is deeply ingrained in American values. It extends in the roots beneath the earth which grow into the branch of self-promotion. Being able to “stand out” in some way – be it with wealth, accomplishment, or success of any kind – is an integral part of American culture.

The Roots Grow

In any cultural baobab, the wispy branches (folkways), the sturdier branches (mores), and the trunk (taboos, laws) all grow from these well-watered roots of a culture’s values.

Values create a culture’s behaviors, norms, and traditions in a way that is not always obvious. But if you look closely enough at a culture, you can better understand how its norms and values are tied. Arriving at this understanding will greatly aid you in cross-cultural integration.

How Culture Shapes Our World

You woke up this morning and ate a breakfast of eggs and toast without consciously realizing that breakfast was culture.

You dressed, got ready, did your hair, suited up without realizing that style is culture.

You went to work by metro, jostled in between a man in sneakers and sweatpants and a woman in a pantsuit, both on their smartphones, without realizing that mode of transportation, personal space, and gender equality are culture.

You sat in on a morning meeting, putting forth your ideas, your boss nodding along, without realizing that business and hierarchical structures are culture.

You chatted with your colleagues about the latest episode of Game of Thrones without realizing communication and entertainment are culture.

Although culture can appear in the form of tangible things – fashion, entertainment, food, etc. – our own culture is, for the most part, invisible. We don’t often say, “Hey, look – there’s culture!” We breathe it without thinking about it.

And, yet, culture shapes everything in our world.

The Not-So-Invisible Shapes of Culture

Being that culture is so alive and vibrant, it’s not so much that you don’t see culture or know it’s there. The thing is, you’re often blind to your own culture, until it’s contrasted with others.

For instance, here are a few cultural differences. Consider your own culture’s preferences in contrast with those below:

  • Greetings – a handshake in America, a kiss on both cheeks in Italy, a bow in Japan
  • Breakfast – a croissant in France, bread and honey in Morocco, fried noodles in China
  • Common mode of transport – a car in Los Angeles, the Underground in London, a bicycle in Amsterdam
  • Punctuality – extremely punctual in Switzerland, very late in Thailand, punctual in business/not so much in personal matters in Chile
  • Sports – hockey in Canada, cricket in India, football basically everywhere else in the world

These are just some of the ways in which cultures differ. Now, imagine yourself trying to integrate some of these foreign cultural preferences into your life.

Cross-Cultural Understanding

Most of the things around you are culture, from what you eat to what you watch to what you wear, from how you get around to how you think and speak. Apart from your genetic material, culture is everything that shapes who you are and how you view the world.

Knowing all this, in order to integrate into another culture, you must make an effort to stop Viewing Others Through Your Own Culture-Tinted Glasses.

Next week, I’ll provide tips on how to do just that. Stay tuned.