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Punctuality Pays When Working with Americans

Of all the cultural differences that tend to irritate Americans, one of the most fundamental has o do with attitudes and behaviors around time, appointments and punctuality. Getting ahead at work starts with getting to work on time!

If you come from a culture that has a more relaxed view of time, you're likely to be surprised at how time-obsessed Americans are. While not all Americans are punctual all athe time, the society as a whole operates on the basis of well-defined schedules. This is true in personal and community life as well as in U.S. business culture. If you disrupt even a small part of the schedule, there's an impact way beyond the immediate meeting or deadline.

Here's a real-life story that happened to me recently. I had scheduled a phone conference with a team from India, but had somehow forgotten to log it into my schedule. Arriving at my office thirty minutes after the time for the call, I found a voice message telling me the team was on the phone waiting for me. Mortified that I had missed the appointment, I called in, and found them happily chatting together. The attitude was "Ah! You're here! We can start now!"

If the team had been American, it's likely they would have been annoyed, and unlikely thew would have waited more than ten minutes - at the most. They would have left me a message asking to reschedule the phone conference. Why? Because American-style appointments have a firm end as well as start time, and if you start late you won't be able to complete the business at hand without running beyond the scheduled ending time.

I've seen dramatic improvements in interactions between Indian and American team members when the differing expectations about time are openly discussed, and agreements are reached about what time protocols to follow in different situations.

In the meantime, if you're new to working in the United States, doing business with the U.S., or working for an American company overseas, here are five tips for your everyday behavior around appointments and punctuality that are sure to help you get ahead with your American colleagues:

  1. Schedule meetings and appointments in advance - a few days, a week, even a month in advance. Your American colleagues will appreciate this kind of advance planning on your part.
  2. Always make appointments for in-person meetings. Don't just show up and expect people to make time to talk with you.
  3. Whenever possible schedule phone calls in advance. Do this by email or voice mail. Don't leave multiple "I'm trying to reach you" voice messages or get into unnecessary "telephone tag" interactions.
  4. If you think you're going to be more than a few minutes late for any appointment (in person or phone), call and let the other party know that you're running late.
  5. Plan your own time so that you can be consistent in following through on the advance appointments you have made. Avoid changing plans at the last minute.

© Karine Schomer. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in Siliconindia. Permission to reprint is granted, provided the article and byline are printed intact, with all links visible and made live if distributed in electronic form.

Karine Schomer, PhD is President of Change Management Consulting & Training, LLC, and leads The CMCT India Practice, specializing in cross-cultural training and management consulting for doing business with India, competitive advantage through cross-cultural awareness, business etiquette and protocols, cross-cultural communication and teamwork skills, outsourcing management best practices, and offshore team leadership strategies. For more learning resources, check The Working and Managing Across Cultures Blog.