Punctuality: Some cultures are wound tighter than others

Times Staff Writer

IN Switzerland, the land of watches, trains really do run like clockwork.

"If I'm 30 seconds late, the train is gone," said Michelle Kranz, who commutes daily into Lucerne, where she works for the tourist board.

Step across the border, and you're in a different universe.

Italy has two rail schedules: the one printed in the brochure and another, flashing updates, on a board in the station. The first may be a fantasy; the second, reality.

Next to posted departures, "invariably you see the word 'ritardato' [delayed]," said Rick Steves, who writes guidebooks and runs a tour company called Europe Through the Back Door in Edmonds, Wash.

Your time or my time? When traveling, you're in their time. And that can affect almost everything: catching trains and buses, shopping, getting a meal and making appointments.

Knowing a little about the culture can prevent much of the frustration.

"It's important to go with the flow," Steves said. "If you go to a restaurant in Spain at 7 p.m., that's bad news. The staff is eating then."

Try going after 9 p.m., as the Spaniards do. For the Swiss, the earlier the better, say 6 p.m.; after 10, a tourist hoping for a hot meal in Switzerland just might go hungry.

As for the French, I swear they are born with clocks in their stomachs. A vintner I once visited near Bordeaux halted in mid-sentence to break for dejeuner.

In France, "the lunch hour is sacred," Steves said, "and it's not a short lunch."

By contrast, in some Latin American and southern European nations, hours and minutes seem hardly to matter.

In Mexico, guests invited to a 6 p.m. social dinner think nothing of showing up two or three hours later, said Terri Morrison, who is updating a 1995 guide she co-wrote called, "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in More Than Sixty Countries," for release next year.

In fact, it's wise to arrive at least an hour late for dinner in Mexico City, Morrison said, to avoid embarrassing an unprepared host.

For Greeks, time can be as malleable as Dali's famous melting watches. On Crete a few years ago, I gave up trying to divine when I should return my rental car in time to catch a ferry back to Athens.

My insistent inquiries, phrased in myriad ways, drew the same response from the rental clerk: "Whenever you like."

Earlier, describing Germans who flocked to her island's beaches, the clerk had tapped her watch-less wrist, satirizing the visitors' capitulation to Chronos, the Greek god of time.

Theories abound as to why time doesn't fly at the same speed around the globe. Climate, economics and culture may play a role.

As you get closer to the equator, the pace of life seems to slow, said Andy Case, Latin America analyst for iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, a travel security company based in Annapolis, Md.

That might explain the familiar north-versus-south divisions within Europe, the Western Hemisphere and even within countries. Who cares to race the clock in 100-degree heat?

Some economists find truth in the saying "Money is time; time is money." In America, we speak of spending and wasting time as though it were money.

Under this theory, rich societies move rapidly; poor societies poke along.

"Low-income countries have cultures, in general, in which the value of time is relatively low," said Genevieve Giuliano, professor of urban planning and policy at USC.

"In places where economic opportunities are limited," she said, "it's easier to give up an hour of work for leisure" -- or waiting.

Russia, where the popularity of punctuality grows as private enterprise expands, lends credence to this theory, said Alex Bobilev, Russian regional manager for iJET.

"In the past, you were working for the state," he said. "[Waiting] didn't come out of your pocketbook. Now a lot of people are working for themselves, and the norms are stricter."

The most intriguing ideas about how we treat time delve deeply into culture.

In his classic 1983 study, "The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time," anthropologist Edward T. Hall used the words "monochronic" and "polychronic" to describe how different societies view time.

People in monochronic cultures, such as America and northern Europe, are task-oriented, Hall wrote. They do things in order, one at a time, starting with the most important and ending with the least.

Polychronic cultures, found in Mediterranean and many Latin American nations, he said, are "oriented toward people, human relationships and the family, which is the core of their existence." In this world, following a schedule is far less important than catching up with friends and family.

Of course, in every society, some people are punctual, some not. Culture just tips the balance.

A colleague assigned to Mexico City once told me this: Many Mexicans start the day with good intentions, trying to keep appointments. But as they meet up with friends and acquaintances, a short "hello" won't do, and the minutes slip away.

Mexicans may be late, she said, but they do show up -- unlike some Angelenos, in a town renowned for no-shows.

In Switzerland, by contrast, tardiness may be viewed as an insult. In this well-ordered, monochronic culture, being late is like telling your host: "I had more important things to do than attend your party, so I put it last."

No wonder then that Kranz of Swiss tourism said, "If you're invited to dinner at 8, you're ringing the bell at five minutes to 8."

Shuttling between nations can be jarring for all concerned, and not just at dinner.

When Latin Americans visit the U.S., Case said, "they don't expect the coldness -- how people live in their own worlds and appointments."

Added Bobilev: "When Americans ask, 'How are things?' they don't expect a 30- or 40-minute conversation."

Russian visitors, he said, are startled that shops in America don't close for a lunch hour, as they do back home.

In France, I've often raced through museums so I can get seated at a restaurant before 2 p.m., when many end formal lunch service. After that, until about 6 p.m. or later, it's McDonald's or a casual cafe.

When touring other countries, I've decided, it's best to let time take its course. After all, if you wanted to be immersed in the familiar, you would have never left home.

"Learn to breathe, relax," author Morrison advised. "Let the other culture take over a little."

And by all means, get to the Swiss train station on time.

Jane Engle welcomes comments but can't respond individually to letters and calls. Write to Travel Insider, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.

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