A short story of the language of time. Four Spanish computer engineers recently attended a specialized training course in Palo Alto, California in the heart of Silicon Valley.
The schedule required all delegates to assemble in a reception lobby where coffee and pastries would be served from 08.15 onwards. The course was set to begin at 09.00.
The Spanish engineers, unknown to each other but drawn together by a common language and culture, arrived at the reception area a few minutes before 09.00 where the caterers were clearing away cups and uneaten pastries.
Undaunted, they searched the ground floor corridors until they found a coffee station for employees. They helped themselves as they chatted about the course they were embarking on and exchanged small talk and stories from home.
At around 09.20, they made their way back to the conference suite, knocked softly on the door and entered. Their course leader, a distinguished American engineer, had just finished his welcome speech. The Spaniards found seats for themselves in the small amphitheatre.
About thirty pairs of eyes bored into them. The host asked if they had trouble finding the venue and, when they shook their heads, he wondered if they had been made aware of the schedule.
“Oh yes, starting at about 09.00,” one of the Spaniards answered smiling.
The course leader shook his head and said, “OK I get it. I’m sorry you missed my introduction, let’s carry on.”
What the host realized, though had failed to take into account, is that in many countries, times are considered flexible, except when scheduling critical events such as aircraft departures and landings, and TV shows.
The language of time
In most of the developed world, the language of time is precise. In North America, Britain and northern Europe, Australasia, China and Japan, arriving late is considered rude and unprofessional. The same applies to the Gulf States but other Middle Eastern countries vary according to local customs.
Greece, India, Italy, Spain, Portugal and most of Africa have a more relaxed approach. Times are considered more of a guide than a strict requirement.
In Africa, for example, it is not uncommon for people to arrive up to an hour late for an appointment. Even in English-speaking African countries, business people, government ministers and even presidents often arrive several hours late for a scheduled event and, in some cases, never show up at all.
In some cultures, arriving late is considered a show of strength and superiority.
Before doing business in an unfamiliar country, do some research on their attitudes to timing and take into account that, if their infrastructure is weak, your travelling time to the meeting is likely to affect your punctuality.
Always aim to arrive early. How early is considered polite varies from country to country. Arriving 5-10 minutes before your allotted time is usually acceptable. Even if the other party is likely to be late, you must still honour the arrangement.
In the English speaking business world, you will be expected to make appointments to meet people you don’t know anywhere from one to four weeks in advance.
If for any reason you cannot attend, you must let the other party know and try to arrange another date.
During the meeting, if your host is showing lack of concentration – fiddling with papers, glancing at the clock or looking uncomfortable in their chair – it may be that they’re running short of time. Offer to continue the meeting on another day or, if your agenda is nearly complete, ask if you may continue at a faster pace.
After the meeting, it is good manners to send a written note or an email thanking the other person or people for spending time with you.
Wherever business English is spoken, arriving on time is expected and if you’re late, especially for your first meeting, you may find it difficult to regain your credibility.
Better late than never is a phrase that doesn’t belong in business English.