The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who are on time, and those who are always late. Sociologists have actually studied lateness as it relates to cultures all over the world. Whole countries can be classified according to their perception of time and lateness. Traditionally, cultures are divided into monochronic (where time is regarded as linear, a limited commodity, and where lateness is regarded as rude) and polychronic (where time is seen as an abundant, renewable resource, and punctuality is unimportant.)
Polychronic personalities see time as flowing like a river – fluid and difficult to predict or master. Monochronic personalities see time as organized in units that can – and should be managed for efficiency. For them, time is like money. It must be managed carefully; it can be wasted, but if saved, can be “banked” or used on pleasurable activities later on.
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Your ethnic background may contribute to your sense of the importance of punctuality. Studying a country’s relationship to time can be fascinating. Some cultures, like those of Germany, Great Britain and the U.S., tend to regard lateness as rude; Japanese culture considers lateness to be akin to a personal insult. In Polynesian culture, India, South America, and many Arab countries, punctuality is not a valued trait. Your appointment time is merely a suggestion, and no one worries about rushing to a meeting, since everyone else will be at least a half-hour late.
Although “Time is money” is a uniquely American concept, not all Americans consider lateness a sin. All of us have experienced the meeting that starts 20 minutes late because a key figure (or several) can’t make it on time. The monochromic personalities that arrived a few minutes early are fuming over the loss of yet more precious time, knowing that a meeting that starts late has no hope of ending on time. Meetings that do manage to start on time often lose momentum when a late arrival requires a new round of introductions or a recap of points already covered. Why is this behavior so irritating to people who are on time? What difference does five or ten minutes make, anyway?
They make a world of difference to your relationship, say many business etiquette experts. In almost every culture, it’s the least important person in a relationship that will be kept waiting. It’s OK for your boss to keep you waiting; being late for a meeting he’s called is disrespectful. The doctor keeps you waiting for over an hour; you get charged full price if you miss an appointment. The one who waits becomes the lesser of the two parties. In the minds of people who always take care to arrive on time, making someone wait is a sign of disrespect.
Arriving late without apology is the privilege of royalty and CEO’s; a 2002 study by the consulting firm Proudfoot indicated that, on average, CEOs arrive late for six in ten meetings. (The ratio would be higher except that CEOs are usually on time for important clients.) One CEO is quoted as saying, “Technically, I can never be late, because the meeting doesn’t start until I get there,” apparently in an attempt to offset any perception that arrogance and tardiness are related.