Posted by: 1of10boyz | May 20, 2012

Punctual or Fashionably Late

One of the more frustrating things for me that happens living here in China is punctuality. In the business environments in the US one of the major transgressions is being late for something. Maybe it is an American thing or maybe it is just me, but being on time is important, that is not the case in China based on my experiences thus far.

I am certain that my experiences for being on time and not being late are a personality quirk as well as something that goes back to my Navy experiences and many other life events. The last thing you wanted to do in the Navy was relieve at your watch station late. There is really nothing worse than being late to assume your watch, even a little early, was not acceptable because by the time you did all of the pre-watch reviews and discussion you didn’t “sign in” on time. Being late was just not acceptable.

Rewind the clock several decades to my youth and I can point to many experiences where lateness was punished or at a minimum not acceptable. Lateness getting to the gym or the practice field meant more stairs, laps, or some painful exercise. The impact of being late for chores was not pleasant either. I can’t remember many specific times being late leaving the house to do my “milking” related chores but there must have been some with the related punishments. I do remember once when Dad came back from the barn, milking finished, me and my brother still asleep in bed. His only words were: “get up, I could have used your help, the cows still need to be feed” as he hurried to get ready to go to work at his “real job”. We were stung by the knowledge that we had failed to meet his expectation and we hustled out of the house into the Wyoming winter to finish what should have already been done.

Fast forward many decades to my work at Pine Bluff where I was locking the door to the meeting when it was time to start and late arrivals were not admitted. The information to “catch up” and “status” would be made available several hours after work should have been over. Being late was a total inconvenience and made for some challenging relationships. The expectations were clearly spelled out and timeliness was not only expected but demanded, everyone knew what was required and expected; meetings started AND finished on time.

The following experience will require just a moment to indulge in an explanation of some Mormon Culture. I will share the paradox of punctuality and Mormonism. Mormon’s joke about time and the inability to be punctual so much so that when we ask about when something is to start, the humorous answer would be to identify the official start time but the Mormon Standard Time (actual start) is about 5 – 10 minutes later than that. We, Mormons, have been getting better about starting on time recently. In the past 20 years I can’t remember one General Conference session that didn’t start on-time and also finish on-time or even a little early. I remember distinctly a training session, a decade ago, while part of the lay leadership of a ward where we were told that starting on time and ending on time were very important.

As profound as those experiences might have been on me it is important to note that the following experiences made it all comprehensible and understandable for me. Of all of the training and ingrained culture that has made me sensitive to being on time, nothing has struck me like a comment made by one of the Mormon Church’s leadership. He indicated that not being on-time for starting meetings and stopping them on-time when it was our responsibility was disrespectful to everyone else. We needed to be concerned about those things because there was nothing more inconsiderate and insulting than to consider “our” time more important that “others” time. We respected them by ensuring that we meet our commitments in all things including the starting and stopping of meetings.

Since that experience I have been very conscientious about starting and stopping meetings of all kinds, I am on-time – meaning that I am at least a few minutes early so that I do not disrespect others by being late. I have found this to have been very beneficial in all aspects of my life. I have no problem holding others to the same standard, but I make sure that they all know the expectation beforehand. So I am struggling here in China where being on-time is an alien concept. Where I have been ingrained to respect others and to show them consideration (the equivalent of “face” here) by being on time, the Chinese don’t do anything on time.

So yesterday’s planned power outage that was to last 13.5 hours and drug on into the night didn’t help me feel that the Chinese understand this concept. It did actual start on-time at 5:30am. It came nowhere close to being complete at 7pm. Now a whole day without power is something that might not seem too inconvenient when there is an opportunity to know about it roughly 18 hours before it was to happen, but to me, a spoiled American, that is not accustomed to planned power outages that take more than a few hours, this is huge. The matter is compounded because it is a weekend, which is sacrosanct and one of the few times that we can actually enjoy being here in this most foreign or foreign places. The power is not restored on time, which surprises no one, and by the time it is restored we have argued that they are doing the delay just to irritate us. The power is finally restored a little more than 3 hours later than expected. The last time that I went without power this long was following a National Disaster Declaration Ice Storm in Arkansas. Yes, I admit, I am a spoiled when it comes to power; I know that many places have an even less reliable power system. I guess that I do take have electricity for granted and I enjoy the benefits and the luxuries it provides (so much so that I wired and plumbed my home to have a built-in emergency generator).

So that planned 14 hour power outage lasted almost 17 hours is really just another example of a cultural problem and difference between my Chinese hosts and a spoiled rotten American.

So what do you think about punctuality? Is punctuality something that is a creation of America or is it part of the evolution of society that hasn’t happened in China, yet?

I look forward to hearing what you think.



  1. Jerry,

    I really liked your description of this American “quirk” of timeliness. I’ve never been to China, but it is on my list of places to go before I complete my sojourn here on earth. I’m currently consumed with a contract recompete process but will shoot you an email when the dust settles a bit and we can get caught up.

    In the mean time, stay well my friend.


    • China is like a different world in itself. There is so much contrast between places. The luxury of the Class 1 cities and extreme poverty of the peasant are almost unbelievable. The interactions we have would indicated that the people are happy even in the situation where the world seems to have passed them by.

  2. Oh Jerry!

    You forgot the positives regarding the rediculously long power outage! First – at least they DID tell us about it…. Coulda been much worse! Second – the weather is nice this time of year so AC & heating are not needed. Third – When else can 15 people gather infront of our building to socialize in the pitch dark by the light of your insane lantern and get yelled at by the security gaurd (who definately needed to look up how to say “Be quiet” in his China-English Dictionary)… AND watch Gary set a fire on the sidewalk with gasoline from the lawnmowers.


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