Being on time

Some days ago, I had to be in East Frankfurt at 9.30 am. As a good uncertainty avoider, I checked how long the drive would take (20 minutes) and added some time for the morning rush hour and looking for a parking space (30 minutes – hey, if I avoid uncertainty, I do it thoroughly). So I left 50 minutes before I had to be there. Of course, there was hardly any traffic and more than enough convenient parking spots (anybody living in Frankfurt knows that this is unusual), so when I arrived, I was 30 minutes early.

On another occasion, I had to go to downtown Frankfurt for a training. That time it was difficult to find parking and so I parked in a semi-legal spot. I had the choice between facing the danger of getting a parking ticket (or even getting towed) and being late. Good German that I was, I decided to risk the parking ticket.

Why am I telling you this? To show how important punctuality is in Germany. Of course you are not expected to show up half an hour early (in fact you shouldn’t – if you are that early, just take a walk) or risk getting your car towed just to be in time, but you shouldn’t take punctuality easy when you are in Germany or dealing with Germans. If you are from a country that is more relaxed with regard to time, you might consider this inflexible. After all, what are a few minutes among friends? In Germany – a lot.

Why is that? In the intercultural world, attitudes towards time are described with the terms ‘monochronic’ and ‘polychronic’. In monochronic cultures, time rules: things are done one at a time, interruptions not welcome, schedules are important and need to be kept. You usually find this in cultures that are very task-oriented: the task comes before the relationship, a good relationship is not necessary to get a task done or close a business deal. In polychronic cultures, relationships rule: if a conversation lasts longer than planned, the conversation (the relationship) is more important than being on schedule, things are not done one at a time, but simultaneously, interruptions are not a problem. These are cultures where business and relationship-building are intertwined, where business is done while enjoying a lengthy dinner or playing golf, where a good relationship is the foundation for business.

As with all intercultural issues, neither way of dealing with time is wrong – just different. If relationships are important in a culture, it is just logical that one wouldn’t end a good conversation with “I have my next appointment in five minutes so you need to go now.” – In a culture where one gains respect and credibility by being efficient and keeping deadlines, time planning is essential. Both ways work well – in a polychronic culture nobody will be insulted if you are late, time is flexible and your counterpart will very likely be late as well. Actually, you aren’t even late because the concept of punctuality is flexible as well. Try it: show up 20 minutes after the scheduled time in Brazil and apologize for being late. Chances are that your counterpart won’t quite know what you’re on about.

In a monochronic culture however, people have schedules and need to keep them. If you show up late, you’ll mess up your counterpart’s schedule, either by forcing him to be late for his next appointment or to cut short the time allotted for your meeting. The message you are sending (even if that is not your intention at all) is: “I don’t respect your schedule. I don’t respect your time.”

You may wonder when you are considered unpunctual in Germany. Basically, every minute counts, especially in business life. A while ago, I wanted to take the train home (it was one of the very rare occasions this year where the GdL didn’t have one of their far-too-many strikes) from Stuttgart. When I arrived at Stuttgart station, I saw the notification that my train would be 30 minutes late. This announcement was updated regularly. It changed to 35 minutes, then to 40 minutes, then back to 35 minutes. Every time the Deutsche Bahn received a new info about the estimated arrival time, they updated the display. Why? Because every single minute counts. So, if you have an appointment at 9 am and you arrive at 9.01 am, you’re late. To be fair, not even Germans will get upset over one minute. Anything up to five minutes is unpunctual, but to some degree acceptable if you have a good excuse and apologize for being late. If you’re going to be late more than five minutes, it’s absolutely necessary to phone, inform your counterpart (again: you have to have a very good reason) and apologize. There are always occasions where even the most thorough planning won’t help you with being on time (cancelled flights, accidents etc.). Still, being unpunctual should be an absolute exception and needs to have one of those unplannable reasons. In general, Germans expect you to plan ahead, which also means to plan in extra time for potential delays, such as traffic, parking problems, bad weather or similar.

What about private life? you may ask now. I’ll give you my lawyer reply: it depends. Believe it or not, but there are Germans who are more relaxed about time. So don’t be shocked it you end up having German friends who don’t really mind if you’re fifteen minutes late, or who are late themselves. I used to have friends like that, but my greeting them with a poison-dripping “You’re late!” every time made them consider time-keeping more. (There you have an example of direct communication….). If you are not sure about your host’s attitude towards punctuality, it’s always good to be on time (+/- 5 minutes). Even though private schedules are not as tight as business schedules, being late still gives the message that you don’t respect your host’s time.

So as you see, punctuality is a big issue because it carries the message of respect and appreciation. Oh, and if you wonder about the delayed train – there were several announcements why the train was late and also several apologies. Also, in spite of the many complaints about the train service, in my personal experience a late train is an exception here (even during the strikes, they managed exceptionally well).

To end with a German proverb: Pünktlichkeit ist die Höflichkeit der Könige – Punctuality is the politeness of kings.

Not only of kings, by the way, but also of Her Majesty the Queen of England. And I should know, because I had the very great honour of meeting Her Majesty last week. I know it has nothing to do with the topic of the post, but I did make a nice transition, didn’t I? And I just had to mention it as it was a very special occasion.

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