What Does 'Being on Time' Really Mean?

Punctuality is highly valued in many cultures, and not being on time may be seen as the height of bad manners. But what's considered "on time" when you're doing business with other cultures?

In most English speaking countries, punctuality is seen as a virtue. Being on time to meetings, interviews and business functions is essential to keep up your reputation. However, the concept is actually a social construct and varies widely among countries. If people being late is one of your pet peeves, you may be in for a shock when doing business abroad. In some countries, it's perfectly acceptable to be as much as an hour late!

When doing business abroad, be prepared to be flexible. Don't lose your temper if people leisurely wander into a meeting twenty minutes after it was supposed to start. You don't always have to adopt the customs yourself—it's better to err on the side of being too early—but be tolerant of a slower pace if that's the local culture.

Culture and lifestyle have a strong influence on a country's views of punctuality. Highly business-oriented countries generally place a high value on time. In Japan, even one minute late is too late. Urban Chinese and Koreans also see being late as offensive. Germans are proud of their efficiency and also keep strict schedules. The French and those from countries in the south of Europe and the Mediterranean tend to be more laid back, with 15-30 minutes late being acceptable. South and South-East Asian countries also tend to be more relaxed about time. South America is on the extreme end, where being on time to a dinner party may be considered rude!

If you want an international standard to follow, it's best to play it safe and aim to be 5-10 minutes early for a business meeting or interview, wherever you are. Just be forgiving if you're the one hosting the meeting. For a social event, you can follow the local customs.


A social construct
Be prepared to be flexible
Influences on perception of punctuality
A safe standard to follow