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The importance of being on time from a self-confessed social tyrant

 Would you be late to a job interview? No? Then why do it to a friend? Photo / Getty Images

Tired of friends keeping you waiting? Try the 10-minute rule, says Graham Adams… but you’ll have to be staunch. And don’t try it in Saudi Arabia.

They are words no self-respecting man wants to hear his girlfriend say: “You have an anger-management problem!” 

It’s even worse when you discover she has repeated the same damning assessment to mutual friends.

I began to imagine them whispering behind my back at parties: “He has an anger-management problem... who would have thought?”

 “But it’s always the ones who seem easygoing, isn’t it? They’re the ones who like to kick the cat when no one is watching...”

It would have been fine if that particular girlfriend had been more specific and said: “He gets really cross when I keep him waiting for 35 minutes for no particular reason,” but that highly pertinent detail seemed to be omitted. 

And it’s true. If I’m left sitting in a cafe for 35 minutes waiting for someone to turn up I do get angry... but only after I have been buffetted by other emotions. I start by worrying that I’ve got the place or time wrong (or maybe both), then move on to fretting that I have the day wrong, before catastrophising and wondering that maybe she’s had a car accident.

Then she’d turn up with a breezy, unconvincing apology for being late (and sometimes no apology at all), and I would be sullen at best or ropable at worst, which would lead inevitably to her announcing yet again in a solemn, patronising tone: “You have an anger-management problem. You really need to get some help.”

Eventually, in frustration (and a nagging worry she might be right), I took her advice and went to see a counsellor. She was a wise old owl, who, thankfully, largely avoided mouthing the inanities that plague that profession, such as: “No one can make you angry... only you can allow yourself to be angry.”

The counsellor thought that being kept waiting for more than half an hour was a perfectly good reason for becoming angry. It’s insulting to be kept waiting, she said, because it nearly always implies that someone else thinks their time is a lot more valuable than yours. She had also been around long enough to appreciate the adage: “There’s no point in getting older if you don’t get a lot more cunning.” 

The perfect antidote, she said, was the 10-minute rule: simply advise friends or colleagues you’ll wait for 10 minutes and, if they haven’t turned up in that time, leave. It would have a marked and immediate effect on the perpetually late, she predicted.

I was sceptical it would work (and wondered if it would mean I would immediately lose my tardy friends) but decided to give it a go anyway – not least as a practical means of keeping my blood pressure under control and stomach ulcers at bay. I warned my friends that if they wanted to meet me, they needed to be on time but I would take no offence if they were unconscionably late because, after 10 minutes, I simply wouldn’t be there to witness their belated arrival. 

A few days later, when I saw my girlfriend’s car hurtling down the road towards my house three minutes after the time we had agreed to meet, I knew the $75 that had gone from my pocket into the counsellor’s had been well spent. 

As the counsellor had predicted, the technique worked on all my friends (yes, I do still have friends), including the hitherto chronically tardy. I don’t think for a moment this happy turn of events is because I’m such scintillating company they can’t bear to miss a meeting with me. The more plausible reason, I have decided, is they don’t want to waste their own time driving across town to find I’m not there, even if they would have previously been quite happy to waste mine. 

When I thanked the counsellor for her excellent advice, she warned that, having announced I was implementing the 10-minute rule, the next, more challenging part was to be staunch. There could be no slippage, she said.

Consequently, I’ve found myself walking to my car with a friend driving alongside me, pleading from the window: “But I’m only 14 minutes late!”

I shrugged, and called back: “You know the rules! Let’s try again next week!” And continued on to my car.

When others became mutinous, I would ask a simple question: “Would you be late for an interview for a job you really wanted?”

The answer invariably was “No”, which gave me an opening to say: “Then treat me with the same respect.”

Over the two decades I’ve run the 10-minute rule much has changed in social interactions, principally through the widespread use of mobile phones. But this technological marvel has been a mixed blessing. It means that someone who has suffered some mishap or disaster can easily contact me to tell me why they genuinely can’t manage to arrive on time. On the other hand, it has also made many people think that calling to say they’re “only 15 to 20 minutes away” after the agreed time to meet has already passed is a legitimate way of keeping friends waiting while being immune to recriminations. 

It seems some people believe the advent of the mobile phone means last-minute texting, emailing or ringing to say you’re going to be late somehow magically ensures you are no longer late at all.

Greg Savage wrote an article published in the Huffington Post last year called, “How Did It Get to Be ‘OK’ for People to Be Late for Everything?” He works in the recruitment industry and says it is vital to be on time to be taken seriously as a colleague and job applicant – a view encapsulated by the saying: “Punctuality is credibility.”

One of Savage’s many bugbears is colleagues sauntering into a business meeting 20 minutes late because they just had to get a coffee before they could settle to business. “Ten people kept waiting in a meeting for 20 minutes, while some selfish prat who idles his way via the coffee shop, is actually 20 minutes times 10, which is 200 minutes wasted. That is over three hours wasted. By you! How much has that cost the business? Shall I send you an invoice?”

It’s true, however, that punctuality is not always seen as desirable. I have been tactfully reminded more than once that being invited to dinner at 7pm doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to ring the doorbell on the dot of seven. Which is where the notion of being “fashionably late” comes into play. This, too, makes Greg Savage cross:

“Why do people, invited for a dinner party at 7.30, think it’s cool to arrive at 8.30? It’s rude. It’s inconsiderate. And it’s selfish, as I witnessed in a coffee shop near my home one weekend. Three ‘ladies who lunch’ (a species not confined to, but heavily represented on, the lower North Shore of Sydney) were chatting loudly at the table next to me. One inquired what time the ‘drinks do’ was that night. The reply for all the world to hear was ‘Oh 7.30, but we won’t get there till nine because by then it will have warmed up and all the interesting people will have arrived.’ Nice. Imagine if everyone took that view. Cocktail parties would start at 3am eventually.”

It’s equally true, of course, that what is expected of guests’ punctuality varies hugely between cultures and what is considered rude in one country will be perfectly acceptable in another. In fact, social scientists divide the world into those cultures where time is seen as a linear progression like a ribbon or straight path (“monochronic” or “sequential”) and those where time is seen as cyclical, best imagined as a loop or spiral (“polychronic” or “synchronic”).

Monochronic cultures include northern Europe, Japan, Canada and, of course, the United States, where businesses run to a schedule, and time is viewed as a commodity that has a monetary value (reflected in phrases such as “time is money” and where it can be spoken of as being “wasted” or “spent”). A day’s events are divided into discrete parts, with a specified time when to start and finish work as well as when it is permissible to take a break to eat. Meetings are governed by an agenda and goal-setting. Tasks are usually performed one at a time. 

Typical of such attitudes to time-management is a separation between personal and work relationships, and concern with “work-life balance”, since both components are seen as antagonistic. 

Monochronic cultures can be further divided into those that require “absolute punctuality” and the “virtually punctual”, depending on the degree of promptness expected. In Germany, Switzerland, Japan and Finland, it is insulting to be even a minute late to a business appointment, whereas in the US, Canada and Sweden it is generally acceptable to be up to five minutes late. You’ll have a little more leeway – perhaps up to 20 minutes – in France, Norway and Belgium.

New Zealand and Australia are usually deemed to be monochronic – and, like the US, virtually punctual – although, as with any multicultural societies, there will be cultural groups that don’t share the dominant attitudes to time-keeping. 

Last year, I was asked directions in Auckland’s CBD by a Maori man in a business suit on his way to a meeting. When I asked if he was going to be late, he laughed and said, “Hey! I’m on Maori time!”

Polynesian society is polychronic and Australian Aboriginals have complex notions of time in which the past, present and future entwine in the “Dreaming”. 

Groups that have different time-keeping rules often adjust to each meet others’ expectations. An aid worker in Vanuatu told me recently that when he organised meetings with locals he was usually asked: “White-man time or black-man time?” Either was acceptable but both parties needed to know in advance which rules applied.

If “white-man time” was agreed on, everyone would turn up more or less punctually, he said, but “black-man time” could mean a wait of two hours or longer.

Together with South Pacific islands, polychronic societies include parts of Asia, Arab countries, Africa, southern Europe and Latin America, where time is seen as fluid and malleable. Relationships are seen as much more important than adhering to a fixed schedule, and business meetings may be interrupted by phone calls and people dropping by unannounced. They can be rescheduled and cancelled at short notice, too, without necessarily causing offence as they might in more monochronic cultures.

In Hispanic countries such as Cuba or Argentina, divisions are also not made rigidly between work and relaxation and evenings can stretch well into the night even for the very young and very old. In Havana, I once found myself in a car at midnight with a Cuban family that included an 80-year-old grandmother and a three-year-old child, as we drove around the city looking for a bar – behaviour that would seem extremely odd for middle-class New Zealanders. The driver was a middle-aged Mexican professor of chemistry who had to be at a seminar at nine the next morning but who seemed unconcerned that he likely wouldn’t be in bed much before 3am.  

Tourists can usually breeze through foreign countries without being particularly aware of different attitudes to time, but anyone who does business overseas has to come to grips very quickly with local attitudes to time-keeping, and how to decide what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour. If you’re late for a business meeting in Osaka or Bonn, for instance, it will definitely count against you, whereas in Riyadh or Lagos being a stickler for punctuality might be seen as faintly amusing or downright pushy.

In most countries, social occasions are treated differently to business meetings, even among those as determinedly punctual as the Germans – although the tolerance there would hardly be described as relaxed by most New Zealanders.

Ten years ago, when I was invited to a party held in a friend’s apartment in Berlin to farewell one of the New Zealanders working at the Jewish Museum, I noticed the party had been set down for 7pm and every German guest had arrived by 7.10.

The 10-minute rule was unspoken but observed by everyone.

I could easily get used to living here, I thought. These are my kind of people.


This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of North & South.
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