Where Does Punctuality Come From?

Where Does Punctuality Come From?

We’ve been talking about #punctuality in the office. You see, it’s Be Late For Something Day today – a day in which you stand up to the tyranny of the timepiece and the cruelty of the alarm clock.

The person who mentioned it was French, sitting at the same desk as a New Zealander and opposite someone who’d spent time in the Caribbean. This got me thinking about punctuality in different countries and how some cultures are known for prizing it and others aren’t.

While researching the subject, I stumbled across a book by a Bulgarian academic called Cultural Differences in a Globalizing World, which has a chapter on punctuality.

It says that punctuality, starting or finishing an activity at a previously specified time, first appeared during the industrial revolution: in the 1860s, workers at a mill in Massachusetts were told that they all had to turn up for work at the same time. What’s more, the author reckons that punctuality couldn’t exist in pre-industrial societies:

‘You do not have to be out in the field and start plowing at exactly 5:30 AM, because 5:16 or 5:42 would do just as well.’

Does that sound right to you? Obviously I’m not going to argue with an expert (ahem), but surely humans have been banging gongs and hitting sticks together as factory whistles for thousands of years. Would you want to be the caveman who was always late for the mammoth hunt? ‘Typical Ugg, always the last one to turn up’.

While I might disagree with one of his arguments, the author definitely got me thinking. For example, he suggests that punctuality is expected and observed in economically developed countries, but elsewhere it’s not respected.

Things get really peculiar when you add in the idea of monochronic and polychronic cultures.

I’d argue that England has a monochronic culture. That means we expect tasks to be handled one at a time. If we’ve scheduled a meeting, you turn up when you’re supposed to, and you pay attention. You don’t take calls or deal with other things.

Polychronic cultures – which I think might be ones where punctuality isn’t important – handle things differently. They try to do several tasks at once and tend to deal with multiple relationships at the same time, so interrupting a meeting to take a call is absolutely normal. Here’s how one book puts it:

‘Immersed in a polychronic environment in the markets, stores and souks of Mediterranean and Arab countries, one is surrounded by other customers all vying for the attention of a single clerk who is trying to wait on everyone at once.’

I bet you’re having flashbacks to terrible holidays right now, right? Late bus drivers and distracted tour guides. You felt they were rude, but it turns out they just thought about time in a way that feels alien to us.

It would be fascinating to see how productive different cultures are when it comes to time. Do you actually get more done if you concentrate on one job, or, if you want a happy society and healthy economy, is it best to bounce between different tasks and conversations?  (Perhaps employers should encourage staff to be late.)

What’s your experience of punctuality in the workplace? Are you a monochronic manager that works with a polychronic partner? Should we have time-cultures mix at the office? Let us know in the comments.


Speaking of #time… here are more blog posts you might be interested in:

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