An Expat’s Guide to the Latin American Concept of Time

For expats in Argentina—and all over Latin America, for that matter—the idea of punctuality is one of the hardest things to understand. Argentines, in particular, have a very relaxed attitude towards time. In fact, punctuality can seem rude.

Even the linguistic idiosyncrasies prove the point.

In a “mañana” (“tomorrow”) culture that loves procrastinating, expats have to learn the half-joke that the word means “anytime between tomorrow and never.” To get together socially, an Argentine might say “digamos” (“let’s say”), “typo” (“about”) or “mas o menos” (“more or less”) to set a time to meet.

Expats should know that for a dinner at someone’s home, arriving at least an hour late is often expected. You will still be welcomed anytime afterwards. If you are the host, it is considered rude to get upset at latecomers.

While people in many parts of the world eat dinner at around 8 p.m., Argentines dine around 10 p.m. and even later on the weekend. That’s why they eat a croissant or ham-and-cheese toast during the “merienda” —afternoon tea.

When Joanna Maddox, a native of Atlanta, was invited to her first traditional barbecue (“asado”) in Buenos Aires scheduled at 8 p.m., she arrived 30 minutes early.

“I was greeted by the chef who informed me that you never arriveearly to an asado,” says Ms. Maddox, who has worked as a jazz and soul vocalist in the city for more than two years.

The first local guest arrived after 9 p.m. Others soon followed. “Not a single apology was given for arriving late,” she remembers.

When the group started with drinks and appetizers at 9:30 p.m. on the terrace, Ms. Maddox says she was ready “to eat the table cloth. I wanted to snatch a piece right off the grill, but alas I would have to wait for that first bite of grass-fed beef.”

The group finally had dinner at 10:30 p.m.

Today, “when I make plans to meet my Argentine friends for coffee or lunch, all I have to do is add an hour to our meeting time and voila, I will be on time,” says Ms. Maddox.

“I found myself asking, if dinner is at 10, what time to really be there,” says Sanja Licina, a 36-year-old independent contractor for a company based out of the U.S. living in Buenos Aires. She was born in Serbia and lived most of her life in London and the U.S. She says she recently waited for an hour and a half to see a stylist for her hair appointment.

“I was so mad, and they were not fazed with my frustration,” says Ms. Licina, who adds that she is always on time. “But the agony of trying to search for a new place again kept me there.”

Added to the punctuality differences is another issue: the late hours. For instance, weekend nightclub parties kick off around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. During the week, the parties start around 2 a.m. That’s why Argentines nap around 8 p.m. before dining.

When she first arrived in Buenos Aires, Margot Demeter, a 30-year-old Romanian-German, befriended an Argentine girl who would always turn up a half hour to an hour late. One time, they agreed to meet up at 11 p.m. to go to a birthday party. At 11, Margot received a text message from her friend saying she was running an hour late. At midnight, her friend said she would be 30 minutes late. This went on until 2.30 a.m, when she finally arrived.

“People in Germany are very punctual. It is a cultural thing,” says Ms. Demeter, who works as a translator for an international financial information company. “In Germany, you are taught as a child that being late is disrespectful towards the others, that the message that you are sending by doing so is ‘my time is more important than yours, so I can make you wait,’” she says. She says that even though she’s become more relaxed about punctuality since living in Argentina, she still believes that.

Even though there seem to be no hard and fast rules about punctuality, expats agree that it’s better to be flexible when it is a group gathering to share the traditional tea—maté—in a park than for restaurant reservations. Expats also tend to be punctual among themselves.

At work, too, Argentines can be up to 30 minutes late. It is customary to delay a meeting to wait for latecomers. A good rule for expats is to double-check the day before if the meeting is still going on and at what time.

Argentina’s state-owned airline, Aerolinas Argentinas, was ranked the least punctual out of 10 national airlines in Latin America, according to the “Punctuality League 2015” report released by OAG, a global aviation data service.

Across Latin America, the problem of punctuality is costing national economies millions of dollars. In 2007, the Peruvian governmentlaunched a crusade against the problem, calling it “Peru, the hour without delay” (“Perú, la hora sin demora”). All of the clocks on public institutions were synchronized to help end the custom of being late.

Peru became well known for its punctuality issues when then-presidential candidate Ollanta Humala was 20 minutes late to a televised debate with his opponent because, he said, he was eating a turkey sandwich.

Yet, no one embodies a lack of punctuality better than former Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who drew international attention for her tardiness. The Spanish newspaper El Pais once wrote that “one of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s characteristics is to be extremely unpunctual.”

In 2009, she arrived 40 minutes late to a state dinner the Spanish king was hosting at the Royal Palace in Madrid in honor of her first official visit to Spain. In 2008, the official picture of the G-20 summit in Washington, D.C. had to be taken again because Ms. Kirchner arrived late.

Understanding punctuality is key to getting a sense of how economic development, competitiveness and government effectiveness can be different in Latin America than the Western world.

“Broken promises, leaders’ lies, corrupt policies and authorities’ complicity generate informality, failure to observe the law, irresponsibility and disbelief in the rules,” explains Andrés Rascovsky, president of Argentina’s Psychoanalytic Association. “This extends to people’s daily lives.”

In other words, it is easier to stick to plans in structured societies with a stable government and legal system.

In flexible-time cultures such as those in South America, “time may have an altogether different level of elasticity in your mind. In these societies, as you fight traffic and react to the chaos that life inevitably throws your way, it is expected that delays will happen,” writes Erin Meyer, an American professor at Insead business schools in Paris, in her 2014 book, “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business.”

“Don’t see a tardy arrival as a lack of respect or politeness but instead just a different way of getting things done,” she says by email.

“And once you get a feel of the culture you can start to do it too. Running a few minutes late for a meeting in Argentina? Don’t sweat it! Your hosts will be just as generous and flexible with you today as you were,” she adds.

The lesson here for expats: Relax, and don’t expect things to run on time.

This piece was published by Wall Street Journal on September 6, 2016. Click here to read it.

 


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