How late is late?

Waiting area in Lagos, Nigeria. Maersk Line/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Schedules, deadlines, time pressure… We are all painfully handcuffed to the notion of time. Scheduling is a state of mind that affects how you organise your day, how you run a meeting, how far you must plan in advance, and how flexible those plans are. Yet what is considered appallingly late in one culture may be acceptably on time in another.

Consider the morning you wake up to that harmonica sound from your iPhone reminding you about a meeting with a supplier on the other side of town at 9:15 a.m…. But your day has an unexpectedly chaotic start. Your toddler breaks a jar of raspberry jam on the floor and your older son accidentally steps in it, leading to several stressful minutes of cleanup. This is followed by a desperate search for the car keys, which finally turn up in the kitchen cupboard. You manage to drop the kids off at school just as the bells are ringing and the doors are closing. At that moment, your iPhone chimes 9:00 a.m., which means you’ll be about 6 or 7 minutes late for the important meeting—provided the crosstown traffic is no worse than usual.

What to do? You could of course call the supplier to apologise and explain that you will be arriving exactly at 9:21. Or possibly 9:22. Or you consider that 6 or 7 minutes late is basically on time. You decide not to call and simply pull your car out into traffic. And then perhaps you just don’t give the time any thought at all. Whether you arrive at 9:21 or 9:22 or even 9:45, you will still be within a range of what is considered acceptably on time, and neither you nor the supplier will think much of it.

In France, 7 minutes late is still on time

If you live in a linear-time culture like Germany, Scandinavia, the United States, or the UK, you’ll probably make the call. If you don’t, you risk annoying your supplier as the seconds tick on and you still haven’t shown up. On the other hand, if you live in France or northern Italy, chances are you won’t feel the need to make the call, since being 6 or 7 minutes late is within the realm of ‘basically on time’ (If you were running 12 or 15 minutes late, however, that would be a different story.)

And if you are from a flexible-time culture such as the Middle East, Africa, India, or South America, time may have an altogether different level of elasticity in your mind. In these societies, as you fight traffic and react to the chaos that life inevitably throws your way, it is expected that delays will happen. In this context, 9:15 differs very little from 9:45, and everybody accepts that.

When people describe those from another culture using words like inflexible, chaotic, late, rigid, disorganised, inadaptable, it’s quite likely the scheduling dimension is the issue. And understanding the subtle, often unexpressed assumptions about time that control behaviours and expectations in various cultures can be quite challenging.

In London. Jacme31/Flickr, CC BY-SA

When I first moved to France (that was 17 years ago), I was warned by other Americans that the French were always late. And this turned out to be partially true, though the impact on my daily work was small. For example, shortly after arriving in Paris, I arranged to visit an HR manager specialising in expatriate assignments, in one of the glass towers of La Défense (the Paris corporate business district). Arriving carefully at 9:55 a.m. for my 10:00 a.m. appointment, I practised my rusty French nervously in my head. The woman I was scheduled to meet, Sandrine Guegan (names have been changed), was a longtime client of the firm and knew my boss well. He had assured me that Ms. Guegan would welcome me warmly.

The receptionist called Madame Guegan at precisely 10:00 a.m. and, after a second with her on the phone, said to me politely, ‘Patientez s’il vous plaît’ (‘Please wait’). So I perched myself carefully on the big leather couch and pretended I was looking at a newspaper while I waited patiently for 5 minutes. But at 10:07 I was not feeling very patient. Had I gotten the time of the meeting wrong? Was there some unavoidable emergency? And at 10:10 … was the meeting going to take place at all?

Madame Guegan stepped out of the elevator at 10:11, and, without a word of apology for her tardiness, she welcomed me warmly. After many years of working in both the United States and France, I can now confirm that in most cases you get about 10 more minutes’ leeway (to run late, start late, end late, take a tangent) in France than you would in the United States. And if you know this, in most circumstances it is really no big deal to adapt.

When being ‘on time’ means you’re early

The first time I really understood the impact of the scheduling dimension came when I was working in South America. Earlier in the week, I had given a keynote speech in Denver, Colorado, to a group of approximately 500, mostly American, managers. The afternoon before the event, Danielle, the conference organiser, had shown me a stack of cards she would be holding in her lap during my 40-minute talk. ‘I’ll hold up a sign every 10 minutes’ she explained, showing me cards that read ‘30 minutes’, ‘20 minutes’ and ‘10 minutes’ in bold black characters. The sequence concluded with cards that read ‘5 minutes’, ‘2 minutes’ and ‘zero minutes’. It was evident that the big black zero on the final card meant in no uncertain terms that my time was up, and, when I saw it, I was to exit the stage.

I understood Danielle perfectly. She is a typical member of my (American) tribe, and I was very comfortable with the idea of monitoring each minute carefully. My speech went beautifully, and my linear-time audience was aptly appreciative.

A few days later I was dining with Flavio Ranato, a charming older Brazilian man, in a glass-walled restaurant overlooking the lights of Brazil’s fifth-largest city, Belo Horizonte. We were planning the presentation I would give the next day to a large group of South Americans. ‘This topic is very important to our organization’ Ranato told me. ‘The participants will love it. Please feel free to take more time than is scheduled if you like. The group will benefit’.

I didn’t quite understand, as I had already tested my presentation with the IT support person, and the agenda for the conference was already printed and posted on the conference door. ‘I have 45 minutes on the agenda. How much time were you thinking? Could I take 60 minutes?’ I wondered out loud. With a gentle shrug of his shoulders, Ranato responded, ‘Of course, take the time you need’. Uncertain about his meaning I confirmed, ‘Great, I will take 60 minutes’ and Ranato nodded in agreement. I went back to my hotel room and adapted my presentation to a 60-minute time slot.

The next day at the conference, I noticed immediately that the agenda on the door still said I had 45 minutes. A bit unnerved, I sought out Ranato in the crowd. ‘I just want to make sure I understood correctly’ I said. ‘Did you want me to take 45 or 60 minutes for my presentation this morning?’ Ranato laughed a little, as if my behaviour was unusual. ‘Do not worry, Erin’ he tried to reassure me. ‘They will love it. Please take whatever time you need’. ‘I will take 60 minutes’ I articulated again.

When my presentation began (after a number of unanticipated delays), the group responded as Ranato had predicted. They were boisterously appreciative, waving their arms to ask questions and provide examples during the question period at the end of my talk. Carefully watching the large clock at the back of the room, I ended my session after 65 minutes. I was a few minutes late as one question ran longer than I had expected.

The customer is always right

Ranato approached me. ‘It was great, just as I hoped. But you ended so early!’ Early? I was really confused. ‘I thought I was supposed to take 60 minutes, and I took 65’ I ventured. ‘You could have certainly gone longer! They were loving it!’ Ranato insisted.

Later that evening, Ranato and I had an enlightening discussion about our mutual incomprehension. ‘I didn’t want to use any extra moment of your group’s time without getting explicit permission’ I explained. ‘You gave me 60 minutes. To me, it would be disrespectful to the group if I took more time than prescheduled without getting your permission’. ‘But I don’t get it’ Ranato responded. ‘In this situation, we are the customer. We are paying you to be here with us. If you see that we have more questions and would like to continue the discussion, isn’t it simply good customer service to extend the presentation in order to answer our questions and meet our needs?’

I was confused. ‘But if you have not explicitly told me that I can take another 15 minutes, how do I know that is what you want?’ Ranato looked at me curiously, as it started to dawn on him how much of a foreigner I was. ‘They were so obviously interested and engaged. Couldn’t you tell?’

I was beginning to realise how enormous the impact of differing attitudes toward time can be. The assumptions Ranato and I made about scheduling caused us to have contrasting definitions of ‘good customer service’. The story underscores the importance of understanding how the people you work with think about time, and adjusting your expectations accordingly.

When the cows come home

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall was one of the first researchers to explore differences in societal approaches to time. In ‘The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time’, Hall referred to monochronic (M-time) cultures and polychronic (P-time) cultures. M-time cultures view time as tangible and concrete: ‘We speak of time as being saved, spent, wasted, lost, made up, crawling, killing and running out. These metaphors must be taken seriously. M-time scheduling is used as a classification system that orders life. These rules apply to everything except death’.

By contrast, P-time cultures take a flexible approach to time, involvement of people, and completion of transactions: ‘Appointments are not taken seriously and, as a consequence, are frequently broken as it is more likely to be considered a point rather than a ribbon in the road…. An Arab will say 'I will see you before one hour’ or ‘I will see you after two days’. In other words, a person who lives in P-time will suggest a general approximate meeting slot in the coming future without nailing down the exact moment that meeting will take place.

When you’re on time, but the train isn’t. Mypouss/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

In the wake of Hall’s work, psychologist Robert Levine began meticulously observing and analysing various cultural approaches to clocks. He noted that some cultures measure time in 5-minute intervals, while other cultures barely use clocks and instead schedule their day on what Levine calls ‘event time’ : before lunch, after sunrise, or in the case of the locals in Burundi, ‘when the cows come home’.

Scheduling is profoundly affected by a number of historic factors that shape the ways people live, work, think, and interact with one another. If you live in Germany, you probably find that things pretty much go according to plan. Trains are reliable; traffic is manageable; systems are dependable; government rules are clear and enforced more or less consistently. You can probably schedule your entire year on the assumption that your environment is not likely to interfere greatly with your plans.

Where time is driven by the demands of the factory

There’s a clear link between this cultural pattern and Germany’s place in history as one of the first countries in the world to become heavily industrialised. Imagine being a factory worker in the German automotive industry. If you arrive at work 4 minutes late, the machine for which you are responsible gets started late, which exacts a real, measurable financial cost. To this day, the perception of time in Germany is partially rooted in the early impact of the industrial revolution, where factory work required the labour force to be on hand and in place at a precisely appointed moment.

In other societies – particularly in the developing world – life centres around the fact of constant change. As political systems shift and financial systems alter, as traffic surges and wanes, as monsoons or water shortages raise unforeseeable challenges, the successful managers are those who have developed the ability to ride out the changes with ease and flexibility.

For example, if you are a farmer in the Nigerian countryside, most of the farmwork is done by people, and you likely have few machines. In this environment, it doesn’t matter much if you start work at 7:00 or 7:12 or even 7:32. What matters is that your work structure is flexible enough to adapt with changes in the natural environment, and that you have invested in the critical relationships needed to keep your workers loyal in times of drought or flooding, erosion or insect infestation.

All positions should be considered in relative terms. Germans may complain bitterly about the British lack of punctuality, and Indians often feel the French are rigid with their scheduling. However, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, and Northern European countries generally fall on the linear-time side of the scale. Latin cultures (both Latin European and Latin American) tend to fall on the flexible-time side, with Middle Eastern and many African cultures on the far right. Asian cultures are scattered on this scale. Japan is linear-time, but China and (especially) India practice flexible-time.

Erin Meyer is the author of ‘The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business’, on a chapter of which this article is based.

This article was originally published in French