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Punctuality is not a big deal

January 8, 2009

I have some free time this morning, thanks to some key members of my project team who went MIA because they ‘forgot’ about the meeting, so I have time for 1 post.

After high school I studied at a mid-sized college in a mid-sized American town. I lived off-campus. For a while I relied on public transport to get to class. Yup, I took the bus. One thing about the bus system there, if the schedule says 8.10 am at a particular stop at Elm Street, it would arrive there at 8.10 am, plus minus a couple of minutes.

The only breakdown I remember was the time when a blizzard came and dumped 3 feet of snow on us. I had to hang out at a friend’s place until they de-iced the streets hours later but bad weather aside, the system would always go like clockwork.

I experienced a similar precision in transport systems that serve the Bay Area, Miami, Seoul and Tokyo.

Not to say that everything ran on strict precision. Flight delays at US airports are noticeably frequent, especially post-911 due to the extra security procedures. And people still come to parties fashionably late. But other than, being late would draw ire from people left waiting.

The different attitude towards punctuality is one of the first things I noticed as I returned to this part of the world, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia. You can schedule something at 9 am but by 9.15am, people are still trickling in. My Indonesian friends even have an affectionate name for it. “Jam karet” or rubber (stretchable) clock.

In my previous company, whenever we had internal meetings, we would fine latecomers Sgd 1.00 each time for being late and it goes into the pizza fund. As soon as it reaches a certain amount, we’d order pizza and share it with everyone.

But you can’t do that when it is your business partners or clients that are habitually late.

There’s this interesting viral email that lists punctuality is one of the 9 principles that separate the behavior of people in rich & developed countries from the rest. In poor countries, only a minority follow these basic principles in their daily life and it opines that we are poor because we lack attitude, not because we lack natural resources.

But what does punctuality mean?

To me, punctuality means respect. Respect for the time and effort people put in to be there on time. It always helps when the first thing you do is show respect to the people who took the trouble to respect your time.

But for many people here, punctuality is only important when you go for a job interview. After you get the job, it all goes out the window. In fact you get irritated when people make a big deal out of you being late. The attitude is, “Well its how everyone works here. If you don’t like it… ”

So we’ve resigned ourselves to accepting mediocrity as normal, understandable and acceptable. And yet we wonder why we can’t synch with the rest of the developed world.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2009 10:46 am

    If you don’t respect my time, then don’t even come near because I won’t respect yours too. It’s funny how people will say “Aiya, 10-20 minutes late only, small case la” or “Late so what? I’m always the earliest even though I’m an hour late”. The problem is, time is a limited asset, something which cannot be renewed. If you are wasting time away, it also means you are wasting your life away. Fine, if you are ONLY wasting your life and not the life of others. πŸ˜‰

    That’s why I really dislike those people who have no respect for other people’s time. If my friends made me wait for 10 – 20 min…fine…i’ll shoot that fella down once he arrived. If a company or business made me wait, then sorry lah, you won’t get my business and won’t see me again.

    And if an interviewer made me wait for more than 30 minutes. I will still stay in order to avoid burning the bridge and also keep my image….but the fact is, I’ve already say NO to the job. A supervisor who cannot even follow such a simple thing, does not fit to be my supervisor and certainly does not deserve any respect.

    You can wait up to 20 mins for your friend? Dude you’re so patient! πŸ˜›

  2. January 8, 2009 5:10 pm

    For the businessman, always “time is money”. Every minute you’re not wasting can be turned into profit if it can be made. But life and values in the 1st world and the 3rd world are totally different. We have to be aware of that difference to stay sane, especially in working environments where punctuality is flexible.

    I was once on the way back from LA. I had the misfortune of having my luggage checked in by a nitwit only up to KLIA when my final destination was Penang. I had only about less than an hour and a half to catch a transit, claim my luggage, clear customs and to check in for last leg of my journey. Imagine my fidgeting and cussing while waiting for my bags to show up on the carousel. A young mother beside me was telling her son about being patient and ‘if you’re late, you’re late and no amount of bitching will help you’, probably for my benefit.

    When I finally got my bags and rushed over to the check-in counter I had only a few minutes left. But then I was informed the flight was to be delayed by 2 hours. Imagine my great relief.

    Being an infrequent traveller, I’ve scant idea of how much time is needed in between, so I always try to be way ahead of time to avoid surprises. The exasperation is when one gets caught in between two worlds.

    Professionally I see punctuality as a universal virtue. I see it as an indication of self discipline. Discipline suggests reliability and reliability suggests trustworthiness. Trustworthiness will define the fate of business relationships – between partners, clients or employer/employee. On cultural differences, you’re right, cultures may not even perceive time the same way. When stomachs are full and the pressure to survive is low, its easy to see why people are laid back.

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