Be There Or Be Square

So, my mother’s story goes like this: it was a lovely, warm summer evening and they were waiting for the famous yellow tram in Lisbon. The sign said that it was expected to arrive in seven minutes.

Waiting For The Yellow Tram

A few years ago my mother went to visit Portugal. She has been in love with the country ever since, and she keeps retelling stories, which we all love, but there is one particular case which she loves telling over and over again, and we cannot help but laugh, since it’s a really cute story, and it captures the essence of the Portuguese stereotype of always being late. So, my mother’s story goes like this: it was a lovely, warm summer evening and they were waiting for the famous yellow tram in Lisbon. The sign said that it was expected to arrive in seven minutes. Great, they said, they didn’t even have to wait that much.

But seven minutes have passed and the tram was nowhere to be seen. Then they looked at the sign again, which now said that the tram was expected to arrive in an additional five minutes. Again five minutes have passed, but no tram. Sign again: seventeen minutes until the tram arrives. Seventeen minutes have passed in the lovely summer evening, and still no tram. My mother and her friends decided to walk instead, since the weather was really nice anyway.

How Late Is Too Late?

I heard lots of people saying that being 10-15 minutes late in Portugal is considered being on time, and if you have to be somewhere, leave home even 1-1,5  hours early, because it is perfectly normal to run into acquaintances on the street and sit down with them for a coffee somewhere in an absolutely spontaneous manner, then proceed to your original destination. For us this is only a bit shocking, but for German people, I can imagine being utterly annoying. In Romania we are somewhere in between, I guess. One of my best friends for example, who is really famous for always being late, once said that when we call her asking “where are you?” and she replies “I’m on my way”, that usually means she is still in the bathtub enjoying a nice bubble bath. We laughed out loud on hearing this, because we really love her, and we grew accustomed to her ways, but this sometimes can get really annoying, especially since the Transylvanian winter is not at all so benign as the Portuguese one, and waiting in the cold can get really unpleasant. But we simply consider it unpleasant, not outrageous. I suspect that if she did this in some other countries, she would soon will be in constant search for a new job, and maybe her social life would suffer some changes as well. And with public transportation, there are some similarities between our buses and the Portuguese tram as well. It is of no surprise at all that the buses are often late, or even leave earlier, or do not come at all. For us the news of the Japanese operator who deeply apologized after the train left 20 seconds early, is a really curious case.

Then there was another time when the relativity of what it means to be on time revealed itself: we were preparing to go to a concert in Vienna. Back then I used to live in Budapest, which in terms of punctuality is different from Romania, as people tend to be more punctual, but being „a little late” is still okay. So we were preparing to go by car, and we were discussing when we should leave. Most of the people involved said that we shouldn’t leave too early, since „the concert won’t start before 20:30 anyway”. The tickets said that the concert was to start at 20:00. And I told the group that maybe in Vienna it is not so common that a concert should start with a 30 minutes delay, and it is certainly not as usual as we should take it for granted. And the concert did indeed start at 20:00 sharp.

As My Grandmother Used To Say…

Of course I have all the other “rules” of being a cool human being stored up in my brain: “Do not arrive at a party on time” or as my late grandmother used to say: “A true lady is always at least five minutes late”. I don’t know if in Japan or Germany for example grandmothers give these kind of advice to their granddaughters, but my guess would be no. I think punctuality is one of the topics that most often generate cross-cultural misunderstandings. The tram, the bathtub and the parties are genuinely funny, but if you are relocating for a new job, you might want to learn about your host country’s views on being on time. You certainly don’t want to come off as disrespectful, but neither as too rigid. You will pick up the norms eventually, but this is a topic you can easily get prepared for before moving. So, get on with it, maybe you can look up some material while you are waiting for public transportation, or for a friend, who is always late!

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

More Articles