I met someone the other day. When I arrived the first thing they did was look at their watch and ask “what happened to you? You’re never late.” I was about 5 minutes late…which I never am.
Since that meeting I’ve been thinking about timeliness and scheduling, or more accurately, lack thereof. As a global traveler this is a very convoluted topic as “being on time” has widely different meanings in different cultures.
I was raised to be a bit early since as Vince Lombardi, the famous coach of the Green Bay Packers football team used to say, “on time is late, early is on time.” He had the belief that if practice started at 9 that meant you were ready to go, not just arriving. As the head coach he had a great luxury that most of us don’t have, he could penalize the late player in ways that got their attention and led to a change in behavior.
My upbringing also included being led to think of being late as being rude. The late person leaves whoever they’re meeting hanging around wasting time chatting while they wait for the wayward meeting member. Often there also seems to be a power play involved: I’m more important than you so it’s fine for you to hang around waiting for me to arrive.
In many places I still act this way. On time is late, early is on time.
But, I just returned from a trip to Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana. Half the meetings weren’t finalized in advance as the schedule was “call when you get to Africa and we’ll see you.” Even most of the meetings with a set time came with a bit of flexibility depending on how it all worked out. Meeting with people ranging from government Ministers to small business people was arranged this way.
This makes American business people, and me, crazy. Spend a lot of money, block out a lot of time, fly for hours and hours, and hope that the meetings are finalized and all works out. Usually it does, sometimes not. It’s the risk you take.
Everyone jokes about meeting on Africa time. It’s such a different attitude about time that it takes some getting used to. If you want to do business in Africa you better calm down and accept that such is the way things work. Throw out those American ideas of punctuality and learn to slow down and relax.
Timeliness is cultural. In some cultures coming on time is the rude time to arrive. Showing up an hour or so late turns out to be on time.
If everyone comes from the same culture, no problem. All understand when 5 o’clock means 5 o’clock and when it means 6 or 7. But what about when people come from different cultures or have to work with those from different cultures. All kinds of bad things can happen from the misunderstanding that results.
It takes all of us to be always aware of cultural norms and how people bring these norms with them when they land in a different place. Sometimes the norms modify rapidly and before you know it they disappear as the person fully integrates into the new culture. Most of the time some of the norms modify but others hang around forever. It’s not a matter of consciously breaking the rules it’s the person unconsciously following deep set behaviors.
If you are the one traveling to new places, you become the offender. Keep it in mind, you too have your deeply held behaviors, behaviors you mostly aren’t conscious of. As a business person who wants to succeed it’s up to you to think this through and work to do what you can to act in appropriate ways wherever you find yourself.
Then there is the completely different idea of timeliness I once encountered on Air Botswana. The people at the hotel told me to make sure I got to the airport and through security at least and hour before the flight departure time. “Why?” I asked. “Because when they think everyone has arrived they will take off” was the answer.