Is "Punctuality Standard" an Oxymoron?

Individual differences in what "being on time" means.

Posted Feb 23, 2012

Roger Axtell often traveled abroad in his role as vice-president for worldwide marketing with the Parker Pen Company.  After many years on the road and in the air, he wrote an entertaining guide for international business travelers in which he offered advice about punctuality.  In New Zealand, for example, "visitors should try to be a bit early."  In Panama, "punctuality is held in very little regard."  In England, "you may be ten minutes late but not ten minutes early."  In Morocco, "punctuality is seldom observed."  In Sweden, "punctuality is a must."

Axtell was hardly the first person to discuss cultural differences in punctuality.  Social scientists have written about rubber time (in Indonesia), CPT (colored people's time), and Navaho Indian time, to name just a few.  In spite of a voluminous literature, only a few psychologists have systematically investigated punctuality within a cultural context.

Here's a question to consider:  Within a society or cultural group, are punctuality standards clearly defined and widely shared?  Or are they imprecise and idiosyncratic?  Put another way, do individuals differ a little or a lot when asked to define early and late?

In one study, Bob Levine and his colleagues discovered that Brazilians differed greatly from each other in their definitions of early and late.  The same was true for Americans.  Within each group of participants, there seemed to be no widely shared, precise understanding of what "on time" meant.

Raivo Valk, Abdessmad Dialmy, and I observed a similar phenomenon in our study of Americans, Estonians, and Moroccans.  We asked volunteers to report how early (or late) someone could be for an appointment without being inappropriately early (or late).  Their answers were all over the map.  Some said arriving 5 minutes early or late is inappropriate.  Others said arriving 1 hour before or after the appointed time is OK.  The rest gave answers somewhere in-between. 

The findings of these two studies suggest that, in many societies, no broad consensus exists about proper arrival behavior.  Standards of punctuality seem to be fairly "fuzzy."  (Then again, most of the participants in the studies were university students.  Maybe it's just students who have exceptionally diverse definitions of "on time.")

Social norms have two components, prescriptive (what people ought to do) and descriptive (what people actually do).  When prescriptive norms are loose, individuals can act freely, without fear of negative sanctions for deviating from the norm.  This variability in actual behavior produces a fuzzy descriptive norm, which then reinforces the already loose prescriptive norm.  Norms as a whole can be tight only when the descriptive and prescriptive components are both tight.  If one component is loose, the other component-and therefore the norm as a whole-drifts toward a similar state of "looseness."

Imagine how a cultural insider might answer an outsider's question, "How many minutes can I be late without being inappropriately late?"  The most likely answer is some variation of "it depends."  It depends on the nature of the appointment, the status of the person to be met, and other factors.

Such a state of affairs makes life more difficult for people when they travel to a country for the first time.  It's easier to adapt to a new culture when norms are widely shared and can be clearly stated-and this extends beyond punctuality standards.  If the rule for tipping in a restaurant is 15% of the bill and everyone knows the rule, then international visitors can easily adapt to the local standard.  If the rule, however, can't be stated easily or depends on various factors-the size of the bill or the quality of service-then visitors will struggle in their attempts to "do the right thing."

References:

Axtell, R. E. (1990). Do's and taboos around the world: A guide to international behavior. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Levine, R. V., West, L. J., & Reis, H. T. (1980). Perceptions of time and punctuality in the United States and Brazil. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(4), 541-550.

White, L. T., Valk, R., & Dialmy, A. (2011). What is the meaning of "on time"? The sociocultural nature of standards of punctuality. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 42(3), 482-493.

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