Punctual, Lifeless Bores: The problem with time-centered cultures

punctual Jack is a dull boy
punctual Jack is a dull boy

I grew up entirely confused about the concept of time and punctuality.  I was raised by Swedish parents in the Cavite province of the Philippines.  On the one hand, I had an exceedingly punctual Northern-European father who was not a fan of bathroom breaks on trips and always wanted to arrive early to anything scheduled.  On the other, Filipino custom dictated that it was almost rude and certainly awkward if you arrived to social engagements when they were officially scheduled to begin.  It was explained to me that if an event starts a certain hour, you are still on time if you come at any point during the course of the hour.  Arrive at 6:48 PM for an event that started at 6:00 PM?  Well done. The Germans arrived at 6:00 PM and got to sit in uncomfortable silence while their local hosts finished food prep and scratched their heads in bewilderment at the newbies that obviously had not been issued the memo.

As I grew older, I became more and more interested in the difference between time-centered cultures (cultures that value punctuality above all else) and event-centered cultures where the timing of an event is less important than the quality of the experience.  Obviously no culture fits either mold perfectly but there are certainly noticeable trends.

A May 5, 2008 article in Thailand’s The Nation starts higher level when comparing cultures: “There is an explicit difference between the task-oriented business culture and the people-oriented one, which affects the way business is conducted. The former prioritises clarity in communication and equates directness with sincerity. The latter regards harmony within the group and interpersonal relations as the top priority.

Time and scheduling are also viewed differently. In the rigid-time culture, punctuality is critical. That is, business schedules and meeting agendas are always fixed as people are time-conscious and schedule-obsessed. In the flexible-time culture, strict punctuality and rigid scheduling get less emphasis.”

As much as I like my trains to leave on time and as much as I appreciate punctual, North American ends to business meetings, I’ve got to say that when it comes to what I ultimately value most in life, I am more drawn to event-centered or, as, The Nation puts it, “people-oriented” culture.  Punctuality is poor consolation if you live in a society where you are not encouraged to savor time spent with others.

Obviously, it is possible to take time out to “have a life” in time-centered cultures and one should not automatically expect meetings to start late in cultures that are more typically people-centered.  In fact, business strategist Godfrey Parkin claims that, “In a business meeting context, the sensitivity to punctuality is always less cultural than contextual. And within that context you cannot make sweeping statements about national cultural attitudes to time because corporate culture plays a major role in guiding those attitudes.”  He gives examples of being the last person to turn up for meetings he himself was running at companies in Brazil and Mexico while giving up on the punctuality of half the group at events in the US and UK.

Despite the exceptions and the nuances though, I AM going to commit the unpardonable cross-cultural sin and generalize:  Time-centered cultures slowly sap the life out of you.  On a person-to-person level, there will always be examples of people that are punctual and yet are fun to have at a party.  But when time keeping and punctuality become the guiding forces of a culture, I say you cease to really enjoy life. The siesta-taking, party-going, San-Miguel-beer-loving Filipinos in the fishing village I spent a few months working in several years ago, were far more engaging and happy than a lot of the time-obsessed bores I have come across in the world’s affluent urban centers.  I would say that as far as happiness is concerned, cultures cannot be seen as equal.  For your own, personal well-being, it pays to be aware of what your culture prioritizes and then compensate appropriately so you achieve some balance.  With that, I’ll wrap this post so I can make it to my book circle on time…


Bjorn Karlman

14 thoughts on “Punctual, Lifeless Bores: The problem with time-centered cultures”

  1. Bjorn, I LOVED this. This is so appropriate for culturemutt. You really cracked me up because it’s so true! The time-centered cultures typically do breed anal-retentive people who are upset at themselves for obsessively worrying about things that they know deep down don’t actually matter. And they are MAJORLY upset with people who have successfully managed to either achieve that coveted balance or who don’t care and are just going to have fun. And then they feel awfully self-righteous when the fun-lovers don’t get paid as much and have financial issues or whatever because… why should those having too much fun also get the perks of having a fat pay check?

    I mean, having a sense of time helps, but it doesn’t make you better at being a loving person or making the most of life. I would know. I’m Swedish too, sorta.

  2. Good to have Swedish weigh-in! I wonder what ultimately helps people break free of time slavery. Some of the most successful breaks I have heard of have involved near nervous breakdowns initially… something really dramatic that puts all in perspective.

  3. I come from a culture where weddings, as a rule, begin an hour late, but you must always arrive at the airport 3 hours before take off. It seems to me that the importance punctuality, in all cultures, is event-specific, as illustrated in my first sentence. Maybe it’s indicative of what each culture perceives as “important” rather than an overall outlook on life. What do you think?

  4. For what it’s worth: I don’t wear a watch, and never have, yet I get stuff done AND know how to party like a Filipino fisherman. Explain that.

  5. Very interesting article! I have to say though, the reason I am punctual is because I am people centered. In this time centered culture it is important to be on time because to be late is to say that the person and their event is not worth your time. Being on time shows them that you care about them and you want to spend time with them. Just a different perspective on why I’m a punctual lifeless bore. ;)

  6. Loved this article Bjorn. Everywhere I go time is viewed differently. Awesome being able to adapt and find a balance for yourself. I experienced some fright this summer for arriving late to a German house in Switzerland. Give the tourist a break for getting lost in the Alps :) Interesting stuff…Keep the blogs coming!

  7. Thanks for the feedback Crystal! Getting lost in the alps is absolutely forgivable… those goats and their bells are now help at all..

  8. Jael, this is a great point. I agree that degree of punctuality is related to the nature of the event and its importance. This is true across a lot of cultures. But this obviously is no absolute rule… I am sure weddings are considered important in the DR even if people come an hour late to them..

  9. Hahahah! Very well put Larissa! Thanks. You of course have the benefit of having traveled and observed different cultures. I like your hybrid of the archetypal time and people-centered cultures..

  10. Your blog is so informative … ..I just bookmarked you….keep up the good work!!!!

    Hey, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, anyway cool blog, I bookmarked you. :)

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