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.

Accepting in Action

There are things about foreign cultures you won’t be able to accept. As we covered last week, behaviors or beliefs that cross a moral or ethical line are the most difficult aspects of a culture to embrace.

That’s where YOU draw the line.

But in order to be successful across cultures, one must integrate as much as possible. To an extent, you must accept the culture as it is. This means you shouldn’t judge the local culture, you should accept ambiguity, you should actively tolerate, and you should explain your monkey moments.

Four Key Steps to Acceptance

  1. Don’t Judge – Be “culture-neutral.” Don’t view differences as good or bad. Viewing a culture as “different” instead of “wrong” will allow you to warm up to their ways. Finding fault in another is often due to fear that you are the one who’s wrong. As Charlyne Blatcher Martin writes for global business protocol, “It is safe to say that our fear or insecurity is often the breeding ground for casting a suspicious eye at ‘the foreigner.’”
  2. Accept Ambiguity – You’ll find that many processes and behaviors of other cultures are ambiguous to you. You must relinquish control and accept this ambiguity. Doing so will allow room for fresh connections to be made. You’ll see that you don’t always have the “right” answer; there are many answers to the same question.
  3. Practice Active Tolerance – To be actively tolerant means to allow for other opinions and points of view, while still standing firmly behind your own. You don’t have to agree, but you should accept that others have differing opinions.
  4. Explain Yourself – Undoubtedly, you’ll make a fool of yourself and have a monkey moment or two during your integration. Instead of hiding behind a tree branch, talk about them with your hosts and explain why your behaviors and views differ from their own.

Accepting Inaction

“The locals are always late! So disrespectful!”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard something along those lines in cultures where time is valued differently than in the Western world.

In some cultures, being late is not a problem. But to Westerners, it’s a waste of time, money, and is a mark of disrespect.

Yelling and berating the locals for their culture valuation of time isn’t acceptance; it’s accepting inaction.

Accepting in Action

Instead of pulling your hair out, someone who is looking to integrate into a culture where the trains don’t run on time must go with the flow.

Relax.

I know many travelers who’ve accepted another culture’s valuation of time but still follow their own internal clock. This is accepting in action. I also know many who’ve adapted to and adopted it, themselves.

We’ll talk about adapting next week.