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The Difference Between Linear and Flexible Time

How to understand if you’re punctual or late for your meeting

By Ronke BabajidePublished 3 years ago 4 min read
Photo source drobotdean on freepik

Have you ever wondered why everyone around you is always late? Or are you the one who leaves their friends waiting for hours? Either way, you’re probably a great person.

Me, I’m not emotionally equipped to keep people waiting. It makes me super anxious. My obsession with being on time is counterintuitive; I grew up in Nigeria, where fixed times have no meaning. A meeting time is only a suggestion to show up on the arranged date. However, my mother and most likely the German School I visited in Nigeria instilled a Teutonic sense of punctuality in me.

It took me years to understand that there is no universal concept of punctuality. Instead, there are two different types of time perception. Some countries live on linear time, and others on flexible time. If people from different time spectrums meet and work together, there can be issues.

Linear Time

German punctuality is rooted in the history of industrialization. Germany was one of the first countries to industrialize. With that came the production lines and 8-hour shifts.

If you work on a production line, you can’t be 5 minutes late for your shift. If you’re late, either production stops and you’re fired, or some tired colleague will have to work overtime. With both options, there will be bad feelings.

Germans adapted to this environment by being overly punctual. Always. Time is precious and measured out in small intervals. Therefore, it is highly frowned upon to keep people waiting. Not being on time and not warning others of your tardiness means you don’t value them.

Being late in a professional setting in German-speaking countries is deemed extremely rude. And with late, I mean 5 minutes. However, in private settings, the expectations are equally high. This rigid planning of your fun time must be the most challenging thing for strangers to adapt to.

I recently stumbled across this very hilarious and very true TikTok:

So, if you are having a dinner party at 7:30 pm, expect me or your German friend to be ringing the bell at 7:29.

Flexible Time

On the other side of the time spectrum are societies that have moved into the industrial age later. And those that are still on their way.

Nigeria, where I grew up, is one of these countries. With its power cuts, traffic jams, torrential rainfalls, and other incalculable hindrances, Lagos is not a place where time is a fixed concept.

“I will come when I come” or “I will see you when I come” are valid ways to let someone know you are planning to meet them.

Looking back in history, flexible time cultures were the norm. In pre-industrial societies, there was and is no need for a rigid concept of time. If you are working in your field, what does it matter if you start 10 minutes earlier or later?

So why not stop and have a long chat with the friend you met on your way there and inquire about the family's health. You might even decide that the crops can wait an hour or a day to be harvested if the chat turns out to be very entertaining or the news grave.

Such societies tend to see time as event-based. At sunset, at dawn, or when the cock crows or the cows come home. This is enough granularity to give someone an idea of when you will probably show up.

How Do You Know When You’re Late?

Over the years of working in global teams and international settings, I learned that there is no common concept of lateness. Most cultures fall somewhere between the two extremes I grew up with.

During my time covering Italy, I never saw anyone rush to avoid being 5 minutes late for a meeting. It was much more relaxed than in Switzerland or Germany. But it was not like Instanbul, where traffic is hellish and meeting times flexible.

When you move to live or work in a place that is not your home, be ready to encounter very different concepts of time and lateness. Prepare yourself by talking to colleagues who have either worked in the other culture or are from there. They will tell you what extent of punctuality is required to remain polite and professional.

Try to adapt and, most importantly, don’t jump to conclusions about other peoples’ character. They're not unreliable or stuck up — they’re just used to different concepts.

There is no right or wrong way to perceive and structure time. We all do what we are accustomed to. Being aware of that makes working in multi-cultural teams and situations smoother.

If you are interested in learning more about cultural differences in the workplace, I recommend reading the Culture Map by Erin Myers. This book gives you an entertaining and thought-inspiring glimpse into the pitfalls of working on international teams.


About the Creator

Ronke Babajide

Woman in IT, Natural Scientist, Life Coach, Speaker, Podcaster, Writer, Founder

Host of the “Women in Technology Spotlight”

Creator of "The Queen Bee Hive"

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