Reader's Comments from E-notes

Our October 2002 "E-note from Anne" was a re-print of an article (called "Mumble Something Time" based on a concept proposed by interculturalist Edward Hall) from our Newcomer's Almanac newsletter. We gave some specific guidelines for when you should show up for a US business meeting with one other person, along with our view about when you should apologize and when you would be considered really rude. We invited readers to reply with their perspectives about punctuality in the US and around the world. A sampling of their replies follows:

I thought Hall's definition was really spot-on. The time frames that you've listed pretty much correspond with the Finnish sense of time - I guess you could say that we are a hyper-punctual people. Many Finns have the slightly annoying habit of coming to an appointment too early because being late is so frowned-upon here.

Funny, though, how our neigbours the Norwegians seem to have a completely different sense of time. I remember an incident once, when my Norwegian friends were meant to pick me up at the railway station at 9 o'clock. They showed up at 9.40, which would have been considered unforgivably rude in Finland. I was of course furious, but they didn't have a clue as to what I was on about!

Having said that, I think there are big regional differences here. I live in Helsinki where everyone's time is scarce, people keep tight schedules and they want to move on quickly. This summer I was involved with people from a company from another part of Finland. They'd show up on hardly any notice and sit here babbling for hours on end, while I would be counting how late I already was from my next meeting. In Helsinki it's considered quite a faux pas to not set up a meeting well in advance and to fail to ask how much time the other person has reserved for the meeting.

- Kaisa Hernberg, Expatrium magazine,

My favorite apology for lateness, if you can call it an apology, was John Cusack's line when he came to class very late in Rob Reiner's movie, The Sure Thing: "There was this problem, and I'm late because of it." The problem of course was that he overslept, but he didn't mention that!

- Francesca Kelly, Editor in Chief, Tales from a Small Planet,

Having been raised in Germany, punctuality is really next to godliness, closer even than cleanliness. Usually, I arrive at a party/meeting 5 minutes early, just to make sure that I don't arrive late. Of course, I am usually the first one to arrive, and sometimes I sit in my car until the clock strikes the hour the meeting is to begin. And then I married a Hungarian. Their conception of time is totally different. Nothing starts when it is supposed to start - half an hour later is a safe bet. It drove me mad in the beginning. Then I grew up and did not take myself so serious anymore, and it works too. I still like being on time, though.

- Margo Letso, Siemens

In Spain of course being "mumble something late" would only start at arriving 20 minutes late, arrive anything less than 20 minutes late in Spain and you risk losing credibility!!!!!

- Elain Hery, Executive Relocations Spain

As someone who has had a problem with punctuality in the past, I have rediscovered my Mexican mother's wisdom -- she taught me "when in Rome do as the Romans". Thus in the business world and in the US there is a value placed on punctuality, so those of us living and doing business here are obligated to respect others' time. My mentor, author/speaker Marta Monahan who also teaches international etiquette, says that if one is going to be more than 10 minutes late, one should call and determine if a meeting is still convenient. Some doctor's and dentist's offices are now canceling clients if they are more than a few minutes late so they do not run behind schedule for the rest of the day. If a client is late more than once, they charge for the cancelled appointment. As the adage says time is money!

- Yolanda Nava, Author of It's All in the Frijoles

All I can say is thank goodness for mobile phones ! They certainly save me being in the "downright insulting" category every now and then!! A quick explanatory call in advance makes all the difference, especially as the other person my be running late too and can then relax. I've frequently been the one to be called, and it's been such a relief to find the other person is late too !

- Anonymous

There certainly are differences when it comes to punctuality per country or origin. Many South Americans find it a mark of "higher class" when one is late. It is only with business men and women that there is a sense of being on time. Many students still feel that if they say 3 PM it might really be 5 PM before they arrive. They realize that differences in our idea of being on time and theirs but doesn't matter to them really.

- Marlena Hesse-Karami, Director, American Language Programs

Quality Service was a big thing back in the early 80's and I remember at that time they stressed how important everyone's time was so you should arrive early or on time for meetings. Now with the focus on customer services it is just as important to be on time.

- Anne C. Debose, ExxonMobil

10-15 late is VERY insulting. Most of our meetings only last approximately 2 hours...... you've missed the concept in the first 15 minutes.
3-5 late you should apologize....... reasons are nice but no one believes them anyway.
1-3 late is o.k...... especially if you walk in with coffee, or with someone else. We all know that clocks & watches can be off that much.
Best to arrive 5 min early and hear everything going on........ there is always pre-meeting talk that gives insight.

- Anonymous

In our company being late to a meeting is considered a crime; yet many people stroll in late to my classes and don't give one word of apology (I ascribe this poor behavior to a general lack of manners in the Boston area and to the notion that learning is a lower priority than taking care of business).

When I lived in Connecticut people were scrupulous about being on time to anything, but we had a high standard of manners there. In New York City, everything happened yesterday, even when I lived there 20 years ago.

My experience in London was that for business meetings people were prompt but public transportation never ran on time. For parties, if the invite said cocktails from 7-9PM, people understood they should arrive at 8PM. In Italy, people are supposed to show up 2 hours late for dinner and from what I understand from my friend who is living in Milano, it's the same casualness in business. Interestingly, she is from Argentina and used to the Latin way of life, but still finds Italians maddeningly slow. I've found northern Europe efficient in every sense.

Personally, I was raised by a mother who liked to be everywhere at least 15 minutes early and now I can't be late even when I try! I think upbringing and the individual's personal nature has as much to do with it as the cultural norms.

- Anonymous

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January 2002 E-note

Our January 2002 "E-note from Anne" was about some features of the US education system that often bewilder newcomers - the fact that teachers of middle class children assume their students will be studying the full range of courses until they're about 21, the fact that we encourage late specialization, and the fact that US teachers encourage and watch over children emotional growth (and why). Readers replied with some fascinating comments:

"I can add some additional thoughts. It was put to me that the American system nurtures the child's ability to conceive of and defend a point of view (right or wrong doesn't come in to it). The European system is one that 'teaches' the 'right' answer."

- Sharon Gulden,

"I have been working with all of the international schools in Spain for almost 12 years now and would definitely echo what you say about the American education system bolstering children´s self confidence and focusing on their emotional well being. Simple exercises like "show and tell" help American children from a very early age to express themselves without fear or shyness and as a "reserved English person" I have always envied the ease with which almost all Americans seem to express themselves to friends and strangers alike. I am sure that your education system contributes greatly to this.

Other observations I have made over the years include the American focus on how to find the information, where to look and who to ask rather than simply learning / knowing the answer. An enquiring mind is more greatly valued than a well drilled one.

As a very well drilled British student I have come to admire American education values and approach, it may not be perfect but I think it goes a long way towards molding a happy person with an interest in the world around him and a keen willingness to learn."

- Elaine Hery, Director Executive Relocations Spain,

"It reminds me of an experience I had in Paris with my French teacher. I had just learned a new phrase "amuse vous", which means "have fun". I was so pleased with my new found knowledge, that I told the teacher that I would say "Amuse vous!" to my children in the morning as they left for school. She quickly became very stern and told me that I should NOT say that because it was inappropriate to tell my children to have fun in school. She said school was a serious place to work hard!"

- Karen Berry, Expatriate Spouse

"How timely of you to write about US Schools, as my wife and I are struggling tremendously to understand "the system". We actually struggle to recognize any system at this time, and learn from various sources, that the experience appears to depend a lot on the specific teacher in a specific classroom. Currently, we are looking at Kindergarten education solely for our children, but we are comparing such basic available data as 4th grade scores for Schools in the Boston area. The numbers are provided by the Department of Education. We are learning as we go, and I am sure your book would be a welcome source of information.

I believe the world is a large place, and there are many countries where basic education is not available to large pockets, or in many instances the majority of the population. It is very difficult to compare the students results, as they are young, diverse, impressionable, and in many instances deal with the challenges of completely different (cultural) demands of their societies. Furthermore, there are no qualifying test for 'average success in life' after basic education that would be useful across cultures, as cultures may find themselves in different stages of survival.... It would be interesting to develop a diagnostic that could begin to measure this type of personal progress through education, which would hold up as a standard across cultures. Therefore, I am most interested at this point in time in the professional education of the teachers that face 'our' children everyday, often longer than parents do."

- Parent from Cambridge, MA

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July 2003 E-note

Our July 2003 E-note was about some questions we were asked by parents of school-age children who had moved to the US. These questions were all answered in our book Understanding American Schools.

Here's one of their questions: Why do teachers use blue pen when they are grading papers instead of red, which shows up better? We tried to explain why many US teachers have chosen to abandon the use of red pens when grading student papers. And here's what one of our readers has to share:

Thanks for your interesting cultural notes. I think you would be interested to know that there is something even more significant about the colors.

Red is a happy color for Chinese. Wedding invitations are often red or pink. Red envelopes are used for inserting money, especially for Chinese New Year's gifts to children. However, red has a different meaning to Koreans. If a person's name is in red it means the person has died. Some of the traffic signs in Seoul, Korea tell how many accidents there have been. The number of fatalities are in red. So teachers in Asia or teachers with Asian students should pay special attention to the colors they use to write on students' papers. (We have lived in Asia for more than 30 years, mostly in the Chinese world. We didn't realize that using a red pen would be so offensive when we moved to Korea.)

- Anonymous

September 2003 E-note

Our September 2003 E-note was about collecting examples of when something that we like or am proud of turns out to irritate people from other cultures. They invariably illustrate the points made in our new Train the Trainer program, Crossing Cultures with Competence, a 2-day workshop for experienced trainers or international HR managers wanting to learn how to develop and deliver a top notch cross cultural orientation. Here's what our readers had to share:

As I might have told you before, I ran sales for X, now Y, in London for most of the 90's. The Chairman of that company, Joe, also a former Ohio boy like myself, and I conducted many sales calls together on new corporate clients throughout the UK. I had to counsel Frank on more than one occasion not to look and act so optimistic when meeting with these clients. It became obvious to me early on that most of the people I was calling on were shy, introverted, and generally saw the glass as half empty. The typical answer from a mid western boy when asked, "How are you" is to say "Great". Our dog could have been hit by a car that morning and we would say the same thing!! I learned to turn the volume down and to act as if things were not so "Great" when meeting new clients.

I also instructed Frank to never let them know that the company was doing
"Great". If we were doing "Great" we probably didn't need their business. We started acting more British on our calls and our success rate increased substantially because of it. I even found myself using their colloquialisms, which to this day still sound strange coming out of my mouth, even though I have been married to a Brit for 21 years!!


- Tim Hagan, CRP

While living in the backroads of the Netherlands from 1993 to 1998, I
went one day to purchase a nice desk chair for my husband for his birthday.
After finding the perfect specimen in a discount retail outlet, I asked the
young, male sales clerk if there was any remote chance that he could assemble
the chair for me before I took it home, as it came unassembled in a box, and
neither my husband nor I relished the prospect of putting anything together.
He replied without hesitation that he would be happy to assemble it for me.

I reacted with heartfelt appreciation and said, "Oh, thank you so much.
You're very kind. I really appreciate this."

To this he responded in great, obvious defense by raising his hands in front of my face and saying, "Whoa!!!" I gasped, "What's wrong?"

That's not normal," the young Dutch boy said.

"What's not normal?" I quipped. "We don't thank somebody so much here,"
he informed me.

"You mean to tell me," I continued in amazement, " that your supervisor doesn't tell you when you've done something well?"

"No, he doesn't. It's not normal."

"No one tells you when they appreciate something here?" I continued to
query in disbelief.

"No, it's not normal," he insisted.

And off I sheepishly went with my chair, assembled nonetheless, but feeling
a little disjointed over what had just happened.

Live and learn. Even the simplest gestures can be misintrepreted in a cross-cultural setting.

- Shirley Agudo, Pro/PR

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