What’s the big deal about being on time? Why do you need to be punctual in Canada?

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Do you come from a culture where a 9:00 am appointment really means 9:30?

In my home country, if you set a meeting for 9 am, it is not unusual for attendees to arrive from 9:15 to 9:59. If you live in the city, it is understood that traffic is usually to blame, even if you can always set out to leave your home earlier. It gets worse for social events – it is not only fashionable to arrive late, but it is also expected that people come an hour after the stated time.

Growing up, I do remember that coming late to class incurs some form of punishment or disapproval from teachers. But it was never considered a capital offense. In our minds, we knew that it was wrong but it was not that bad. It was only a minor thing.

Here in Canada, being late is considered almost a crime. Why is punctuality a big deal in Canada?

The cultural concept of time: High context and low context cultures

Aside from environmental and societal realities (like traffic), the concept of time is mainly rooted in culture. To differentiate in general terms and concentrating only on the concept of time, “high context” cultures regard time as something that is flowing while “low context cultures” see it as fixed.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall popularized these terms. He explains that in high context cultures like countries in East Asia or Latin America, the concept of time is cyclical. They see that time that passes will come again and so schedules can be flexible. Also, relationships are valued more highly than tasks in high context cultures. People depend on the strength of relationships where values and assumptions are shared. This is why communication in such cultures can be implicit. Not every rule has to be said or written; it is assumed that everyone is on the same page.

Meanwhile, in low context cultures like Canada, US, or Western European countries, the concept of time is linear. They schedule tasks for each unit of time and once it passes, it’s gone. Each minute is precious and not to be wasted. They are also task-centered – a person’s effectivity is measured by how much one achieves at a given time. This is why time spent on interpersonal relations is limited. Communication is also explicit, meaning every detail is verbalized or written – you are told which rules to follow and what is expected.

So, why do you need to be on time in Canada?

Based on these concepts, being on time in Canada means more than being on time. It also carries with it the perception of your character and capabilities. You need to adapt because:

Time is money

Delays cause expense, especially in business. Deadlines are set precisely to meet production goals. If an employee cannot be at work on time, it is assumed that they get less work done and therefore, cannot meet deadlines. This is why attendance and punctuality are among the criteria that measure an employee’s performance. By the way, in the Canadian workplace, if your work starts at 9:00 am, you are expected to arrive 10-15 minutes early so that you can start working by 9:00 sharp.

It is an indicator of character

Being on time says that you are:

  • highly professional
  • organized (because you manage your time well)
  • dependable
  • a person of integrity (because you value your word)
  • trustworthy

It’s all about respect

Punctuality is a matter of consideration for others. You don’t want to keep them waiting and waste their time. Punctuality also upholds the idea of equality. A person who is always late is seen as self-important and a rule-breaker; it is perceived that these people think that their time is worth more than other people’s time.

Do you find it hard to be on time?

It can be hard to be punctual if you grew up in a high context culture. This doesn’t mean that you are a bad person. It just means that you have a different perspective. But now that you’re in Canada, it’s important to make an effort to shift your perspective and attitude about time. Try these tips:

  1. Remember your reasons – Why do you need to be punctual? It could be because you want to be known as a respectful, dependable, trustworthy, and highly professional individual. Or it could be simply because you don’t want to lose your job. Remember these reasons when you’re finding it hard to be on time.
  2. Prepare ahead – Plan and do all that you can to prepare before an appointment. For example, if you have an early meeting, get your clothes and things (e.g. keys, bag,) ready the night before. Check your gas tank if you have enough fuel. If it’s your first time to go to the meeting place, check it on Google Maps in advance or visit it before the meeting. Check if there is parking or if there are certain hours when traffic might be heavy. Be ready for any contingencies that may make you late so that you’ll be able to handle them quickly.
  3. Plan for trouble – Leave a 30 minute allowance for every appointment. Think of it as a buffer for any emergencies (for example, heavy traffic or a minor accident on the road). If you arrive super early, you could always use the extra time to go to the washroom, check documents, compose yourself, or even meditate.
  4. Track your tasks – Some people say that they can shower and get dressed in 15 minutes but in reality it takes them an hour. Get a clear idea of how much time you really need by listing down your morning routine. Use a timer to track how long it takes for you to shower, get dressed, have breakfast and get your things ready. Use your time estimate when scheduling your day. You might realize that you need to wake up earlier than usual to be out of the house at a certain time.
  5. Make it a habit – Wake up at the same time every day. Consistently aim to be at your desk or an appointment 10 minutes early. Set your clocks at home, in your car and at the office 5 to 10 minutes early (don’t forget your watch) to ensure that you’ll be prompt. If you do this often enough, being punctual will become second nature to you.

Article updated July 23, 2021.
Sources: High and low context, Culture at work; 5 reasons why punctuality will always be relevant in your career, Robert Half; Manners and etiquette in Canada, Canada Guide; Newcomers Guide to the Canadian Workplace, Kristle Calisto-Tavares Workplace Integration of Newcomers; How to be on time every time, Dustin Wax, Lifehack; and 12 tips for being punctual – Improve your life by being on time, Daring to live fully. Accessed January 31, 2019.

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