Being “On Time”: Consider the Country

Posted on Sep 25, 2019 | 0 comments

Being “On Time”: Consider the Country

Time takes on a different meaning in different countries. Standards for punctuality vary greatly from country to country and a lack of understanding as to what is locally “correct” can be perceived as offensive, insensitive, and unprofessional. The subtleties of getting this right, however, can be a challenge to the novice. Questions you should ask include what to expect with regard to starting and ending appointments or interviews on time, but observation is also needed to watch how people interact to ensure your own actions don’t make others uncomfortable.


I currently am an American working in Germany. I understand that the German culture treats start times for both business and social appointments with a very literal strictness: If you are asked to be there at 6:00PM, that is the latest time one should arrive. In Germany, the rule of thumb is that it’s better to be five minutes early than one minute late. This means guests or scheduled appointments often show up early. As an American hostess, I always counted on a little “lag” time between the stated start time and when guests might arrive, but in Germany I understand I need to be prepared with a warm welcome 15 minutes before my “official” start time. And in the office, I can be assured my next appointment is already waiting ahead of the start time, so whatever activity I am currently engaged with needs to end promptly so there is no delay. Running late for an appointment happens in Germany as it does anywhere in the World, but it is considered important to call and notify of your late arrival, even if getting in only ten minutes late.


Contrast this with a funny story shared with me by a German colleague who was on a business trip in Spain. His host invited him for a dinner, starting at 9PM. The German suspected he’d misunderstood – who starts a dinner on a weekday at 9PM?— but when he called to clarify, was assured this was the correct time. So promptly at 9PM, my German friend knocked on the door, wine in hand, waiting to be let in… but no one answered. He knocked again. After several minutes, his host finally appeared, in a bathrobe, looking at him with puzzlement: Why was he already there? Yes, the invitation was for 9PM, but surely he understood no one would really be arriving until 9:30 – at the earliest?


Living in Germany also means understanding their approach to planning is different. It is not unusual to be asked for a birthday celebration that is 3 months away. I’ve been told that an average Germans’ furthest social event, confirmed and scheduled on the calendar, goes as far ahead as 150 days. This is in sharp contrast to American style planning, in which less than a week’s notice is not considered unusual. Neither of these approaches are wrong or right, but if you don’t understand the differences, you might not realize you’ve given offense by inviting a German guest to participate in something without proper notice. It might appear you’ve purposefully invited them so late as to ensure they would not be able to participate.


Getting a feel for these types of differences takes time. Remember to ask lots of questions; it is almost always obvious if you are not local and people are generally happy to explain their expectations, customs and norms. Keep your eyes open as well to observe how people react to each other and take notes!


Interested in learning more about how to succeed professionally in a new country?

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