How Relative Is “Being on Time”?

In some cultures it is acceptable to be late, meaning arriving after the agreed upon time. This makes the definition of “being on time” subjective as some take it as meaning being 5 minutes before the agreed upon time, for others 15 minutes after.

I’ve asked this of many people and some swear there’s no such thing as cultural differences when it comes to being on time. Others argued that everyone knows that everyone else will be 15 minutes late so, in fact, everyone is on time.  In today’s increasingly diverse workplaces these differences can create some tension – and make some team members feel they’re being taken advantage of.

Do you deal with this cultural difference in your workplace? What approach do you take?

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  1. James on the 21st July

    If you’re not in the room within 5 minutes of an agreed start time and you haven’t bothered to contact me with an apology or an explanation, the meeting is cancelled and will be rescheduled for 10 minutes after hell freezes over.

    Disrespect my time, you disrespect me.

    • Steve on the 21st July

      Excellent! While I give 2 minutes more than you do, I still agree with the reschedule time!

  2. Aubrey on the 21st July

    I work in an Agile Dev environment, they don’t manage my time and people are “late” all the time.

    I think concerning meetings though, you better be there on time. Meetings are already an INSANE waste of time IMO. Read Rework by the Basecamp founders for more on that… if you are going to waste multitudes of time, you better minimize your losses and be there at the agreed meeting time.

  3. Anna Lear on the 21st July

    While I appreciate cultural differences, I believe that in a workplace everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to certain things. Time is one of them. I guess it also depends on which country the workplace is in since that primary culture should trump individual worker’s perceptions when it comes to making group arrangements.

    Having “10 in the morning” mean “10 in the morning” to everybody seems like the most straightforward and reasonable thing to do. If somebody needs to account for personal culture, they can put the meeting in their calendar as a 9:30 or something. 🙂

    • Ana da Silva on the 22nd July

      You know, I’ve a Latin American upbringing with a New York work background. When I spend a lot of time in Brazil my notion of time sways towards “take it easy” and so for the first month or so after returning to NYC from Brazil I actually used to write down meeting times for at least 1/2 hour earlier than scheduled.


  4. Andrew on the 21st July

    I have always lived by what I was told during my 4-H years. “If your early your on time, if your on time your late, and if your late your left!” Thats how I live and on more than one occasion I have left a meeting or left someone that was’t ready. My time is precious don’t waste it.

  5. Mark on the 21st July

    Being a business owner I do not like my time being wasted. In business you should stay on time or have the courtesy to call.

    Now outside of business I don’t mind as much but I like to be on time or early anyway be it business or not.

  6. Alex Smith on the 21st July

    Time is money, so be on time or call if you are going to be late.

    Outside of work its not a big deal for me if someone is 15min late or so with out calling.

  7. John Hulsey on the 21st July

    I was taught as a child that being late is a lack of respect for someone else’s time. And I have learned as an adult that I cannot expect people to read my mind nor should I be expected to read theirs. If a meeting is set for 10:00, that means it should begin at 10:00.

    Cultural diversity is not an excuse to be unprofessional.

  8. Pablo Valerio on the 21st July

    I agree with most comments. In Spain, specially in cities like Madrid, being late is starting to be “normal” due to traffic, longer meetings than expected, personal issues, etc.

    Many are packing too many things in one day, and the domino effect starts when the first task or meeting is delayed.. People should start thinking about how much they can do or , better yet, how much they are not doing.

    And YES, being late it is disrespectful, and wasting other people’s time in useless discussions as well.

  9. Jessica Bosari on the 21st July

    I feel like we’re all hyper-American. In other countries, work is not everything, it’s just a part of your life. Here, it’s like work is the center of your universe. You actually have to think hard about choosing between work and family. How I wish a mid-day nap or full hot lunch was routine in this country!

    Anyway, the meetings I schedule are with clients and they are the ones who pay my bills. So my attitude is that I am the only one who cannot be late. I am there on time, and there is always some work to keep me occupied while I wait. My clients have clients of their own and must put their own clients first. I understand and accommodate that. The customer must come first.

  10. Alex on the 22nd July

    I work as a computer programer for a mid size company in NC. Our time is valuable, don’t get me wrong, but as for starting the day we are super flexible, I’ll come in and work from 4 am and leave at noon to if I have to, its all about being at work as long as you are productive at work we really don’t have the standard clock in and clock out times, its all about productivity and when we have meetings there is a general agreement that everyone will be there on time or within five minutes

  11. melanie brooks on the 22nd July

    I actually set my clocks 5-10 minutes fast so that I am never late. It’s so embarrassing.

  12. Quik Hit on the 22nd July

    “on time” is late. Show up 5 to 10 minutes early…ALWAYS!!!

  13. Alvin Crespo on the 22nd July

    Being early is the way to go. If you think about it, the earlier the better because you’re able to get things done quicker. My only problem with getting in early is that sometimes, team members take advantage of your good will and then create certain unrealistic expectations.

    Honesty and being realistic are two quality features that team members must have in order to understand that being early is awesome and that certain circumstances may occur that prevents timeliness.

  14. Jeffery Deredin on the 23rd July

    I go by Military time if you’re 10 min. early your 5 min. late. I always show up 15 min. early unless the wife is with me then I know I’m going to be late.

  15. David Arnold on the 16th January

    I find this subject incredibly simple, and yet, there is always the man/woman who jsuts doesn’t get it. Be prompt, or send the message that you are better than everyone else. I was about to talk with a guy about doing a business together. We agreed to talk at 2:00 PM yesterday. I reached him at 4:20 PM, and he started off by giving all sorts of excuses. Today we were supposed to talk at 2:00 PM. I texted him at 1:50 PM. I said “do you know why the Dutch have always been so “quietly” dominant in the world of business for hundreds of years?” Answer: Hint: it isn’t the chocolate. It is because they are incredibly prompt. To be “on time” is to be efficient and respectful of others. If you are chronically late, you are sending “one of two” messages. 1) I am disorganized or I have mental problems, or 2) I am above you. It is fine for you to wait for me. The Dutch lead the way on timely, courteous behavior, and irresponsible children are seen as just that: irresponsible children.

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