It’s Totally Ontological, Dude

The problem with being punctual in Taiwan is there’s no one there to appreciate it.

I’ve adjusted to life in a high-context culture, and what I haven’t adapted to, I’m pretty good at ignoring. Nothing really riles me, except high-context time. The Taiwanese concept of time is, for me, the cultural equivalent of being forced to wear wet underwear. It just drives me nuts. I can’t help it. I come from a Germanic background. The Germans are lots of things—but round-headed they ain’t. My family immigrated to Canada in the early seventeenth century, so actually there was very little Germanness in my upbringing. Despite that, a Teutonic sense of time and punctuality was whipped into me from an early age, and boy, it stuck.

The German culture has a very monochronic sense of time. Monochronic cultures emphasize the importance of time. For them, time is constant, continuous, and tangible. It has value—it can be saved, spent, wasted, etc. Typically adhering to strict deadlines is emphasized. Punctuality is a cardinal virtue. Low-context cultures tend to be monochronic, while high-context cultures are more polychronic. Punctuality and time-structure are less important in polychronic cultures. Time is more fluid. Deadlines are a nice ideal, but nothing to get bogged down with.

On the scale from extremely monochronic to especially polychronic, modern Taiwan is somewhere in the middle, but leaning polychronic. I lived in Thailand years ago—Thai time is a polychronic hell. Taiwan is pretty reasonable, however the insouciant attitude to punctuality here still sets my Germanic blood boiling. On an interpersonal level you can adjust, even find humor in it. When I first moved to Taiwan, I became friends with a China Airlines flight attendant. I liked meeting her. She was always on time—to the second. That’s fair, and also impressive. That was her airline training. Then she quit the airline. I swear to God she hasn’t been on time since then. At the snap of a finger, she went from the most precisely punctual person I ever met to just another Taiwanese women, constantly half an hour late. It amazes and tickles me.

It is not always so easy to see the humor when dealing with my wife. She’s engaged in an epic struggle to be slightly late for everything. It drives me crazy. I get antsy if we’re not on target to arrive at inconsequential events at least 10-15 minutes early. It’s calming to be out the door in good time, and to not have to rush about trying to make it. Venus feels ripped off if she arrives early, like somehow she lost that time. She would rather use that time at home, running in ellipses trying to get ready, dashing in and out of the door to collect the various forgotten items, and then racing through Taipei gridlock, constantly checking our watches, trying to find ways to defeat traffic, and sliding into an event just as the doors are shutting. It leaves me a jittering mass of frayed nerves. She loves it—she thinks if she arrives at the last second she won. Someday it is going to be the death of me. Flying with my wife is a thrill ride that usually sees me arrive at the gate with my iliohypogastric nerve in full spasm. (That’s classy medical terminology for “it’s a sphincter-flapping experience”).

For contrast, a while back one of my oldest Canadian friends visited me. His background is German Mennonite, so, you know, his head has a few right angles also. We bicycled around Taiwan. At the end of the trip he had a midnight flight to Canada. He left for the airport before 6:00 pm. It’s less than an hour from my house to the airport, but as he said: “I’ll leave a bit early, you know, just in case of problems, and to have a stress-free transit to the airport. And, hey if I’m a few hours early, that’s okay it will allow me to mellow out before the flight, and not have to rush to get on the plane”. I hear ya, Bud.

In your personal life it may annoy, but differences between mono- and polychronic time can be disastrous in business. The monochronic workplace values orderliness—doing things at the appropriate time and place. There is a strong preference towards concentrating on a single task, doing the job well and on time, then moving on to the next task. Plans are important, and not to be carelessly violated. The polychronic workspace favors multitasking. A polychronic manager likely has an open door policy. While chairing a meeting he might answer phone calls, talk with staff, and possibly pop out to deal with an office issue. People and relationships are the primary concern, tasks and objectives are worthy goals, not absolute musts.

When these two business cultures interact, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding. I once met a Canadian salesperson in Taiwan on business. He’d flown in to meet the CEO of a medium-size Taiwanese corporation. His company had already laid the groundwork for a multi-million dollar sale, and he came to smooth out some issues. During the meeting with the corporation’s senior officers, the CEO and senior purchasing agent were late, the meeting was interrupted by phone calls, and a few times staff wandered in disrupting the meeting. He was livid, and saw management’s behavior as an intentional slap in the face. He’d flown from Canada for the meeting and they’d disrespected him and his time by not arriving  punctually and concentrating on him during the meeting. He believed they were being deliberately insulting and that the deal was clearly in peril.

I tried to tell him there might be another interpretation. But, he wasn’t interested in hearing any of my Asian culture explanations bullshit—he’d seen what he’d seen, and knew what he knew. Nothing was going to change his mind about the abuse he’d suffered. I just let it go, and left him sulking in his beer. No corporation is paying me to teach their staff about intercultural business practices. That was awhile ago, most upper management in large Taiwanese companies are sensitive to these issues now. Misunderstandings are more likely further down the management chain or in smaller, more local, companies.

Still, I understand how he felt, I continue having a visceral reaction to the discourtesy of tardiness. It’s hard not to feel disrespected. The final anecdote belongs to my wife; no one disrespects a man quite like his wife. Sometimes I pick her up from work on my scooter. Her old office was on Fuxing North Rd., a pretty busy thoroughfare. I’d ride all the way there, allowing plenty of time to negotiate rush hour traffic and arrive in good time. I was constantly miffed that she was never downstairs, on the road, waiting for me when I got there. After all, she knows precisely when I’ll arrive—I’m never late. But, that’s okay, I know I’m in Taiwan, we can’t expect perfection. So I’d phone from the street, let her know I was there, and commence waiting. Usually she’d be precisely twenty minutes late. Which really pissed me off. If you can manage to be precisely twenty minutes late each time, then you can just as easily be on time—it’s the same process. When I would ask her why she was late, it was always a variation on the same theme, “Oh, I was about to leave, when blah-blah walked by my desk, so obviously we had to chat, have a cup of tea, maybe enjoy a communal pee [girl-style]. What could I do?” You could tell them your husband is downstairs, in the heat and humidity,  on the baking asphalt, choking on gas fumes, waiting for you, and that you need to go! I stopped picking her up after I was left standing on the street waiting for three hours for her to come down. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me a hundred times, shame on me.

However from her perspective, relationships [with colleagues] are important—time not so much. She had absolutely no compunction about wasting my time. It never occurred to her that there was anything remotely ill-mannered about  it. Of course to me, Monochronic Man,  there’s no greater affront—she’s disrespecting my time and me as a person. It’s enough to make my Germanic head explode. Yep, I could totally understand where that Canadian salesman was coming from. Let’s just say, punctuality’s siren call leans towards a whisper here.