I often marvel at the efficiency and speed at which Indians can create, produce or turn some things around. From processing my residency permit and employment visa or sewing and tailoring a closet full of clothes to developing software in the flash of an eye and hiring thousands of new staff members for a recently inked outsourcing project. Speedy, speedy, speedy.
But then I sit back and wonder…how in the heck is so much being done so quickly when it seems like everyone is always running late? Okay, maybe not everyone. But it does seem like a massive amount of the population runs on what Indian’s jokingly refer to as Indian Standard Time. And that means L-A-T-E! Damn late in many cases.
When I first moved to India and started working I did notice quite quickly that none of our meetings ever started on time. Not with the first company I worked with and certainly not at my current job. The meetings I’m in are always with the ‘chiefs’ or other heads of divisions or departments like me. From my point of view, it is insane how much time and money is wasted due to our inability to efficiently start a meeting at the appointed time but it is what it is.
In fact, there have been times when I’ve been sat in meetings with the 20 top-level individuals in a company (not always the company I work for, sometimes I am at an off-site meeting). The group is all there except one or two people who are running late (or more) and so we wait. Sometimes up to 30 minutes. I’ve often sat there trying to calculate the money lost by the company for all of the chiefs, directors and heads of teams to be sat in limbo land like that, completely unproductive. These are the top bread winners in the company having their time wasted and – oddly – no one ever appears to be bothered by it. From what I can gather, it is so commonplace that it is simply an accepted practice.
I’m no angel and I’m certainly guilty of being tardy too. Most of us are guilty of it from time to time. But I struggle with it a bit. I started my career in California, therefore my inherent desire to start meetings on time has long been hard-wired into me. On many occasions I’ve seen how frustrated visiting clients and co-workers from other countries become over this late issue and I don’t blame them. For me, being on time at a meeting (and subsequently following an agenda and ending on time) demonstrates respect – not only for the organiser of the meeting and the attendees but also for the bottom-line of the company which loses Rupee after Rupee with each passing second that team members are sat idle doing absolutely nothing as they wait for a meeting to start.
Tardiness is not just for the workplace either. I had a really tough time dealing with the fact that the first Indian I dated here was never on time. Not once, it was incredible! It was actually a blow to my ego because I translated his actions into lack of interest. From my point of view, he wasn’t making our dates – or the respect for my time – a priority. Might seem a bit melodramatic but when you’re not accustomed to such tardiness it really is hard to understand. Eventually I concocted a ‘late calculator’ system to approximate his E.T.A.! He would tell me what time he was coming to collect me, then later change the time by X number of minutes. Eventually I started taking that ‘X factor’ and doubling it and that was roughly the actual time I knew to expect a knock at my door. Pretty funny when I think back on it. Once he was late by so many hours that I naturally assumed I had been stood up. That was all too much for me.
With my friends I’ve learned to be much more relaxed about time and understand that most of them do indeed run on Indian Standard Time here in Bangalore. More often than not I’ll be the first one to arrive to a location and end up patiently waiting in the car or at the restaurant or bar for my mates to arrive. At times this has turned out to be somewhat of a gift in disguise because I tend to start speaking to people instead of sitting alone and I have made some nice friends in Bangalore this way. However, I do realise that not everyone is quite as outgoing as I am so this tardiness issue would really cheese me off if I was more timid or less social and left alone waiting for more than a moment or two for friends.
So why are so many Indians running late? The top excuse, at least in Bangalore, is “I was stuck in traffic.” One friend of mine has never been on time and his excuses are always varied but I think the underlying reason is that he would actually really like to arrive at that pre-arranged time but then he continues to BBM or take calls, etc. instead of disconnecting in order to get ready and leave the house on time. His issue is simply time management and also – ever so slightly – living in a fantasy world where his arrival time in his head is X but in the real world it never is – at least I’ve never once seen him arrive on time.
One thing I know for a fact is that Indians do not wish to disappoint people and therefore are not always straightforward and will often say what they think someone wants to hear instead of the truth. With that in mind, there is an additional facet to being late that really cracks me up at times and honestly I have never witnessed it anywhere else before living here. On a MULTITUDE of occasions I have witnessed friends pick up a call and end up saying something like “yeah, yeah, sure, sure… I will be there in 15 minutes.” When my mate hangs up, I’ll look over and ask where they are going and he or she will reply that they aren’t going anywhere. Sorry, what? Apparently some other friends have called to make a plan with them and my mate simply felt it is easiest to say that he or she is on their way than say that they don’t want to go. I haven’t fully understood the reasons behind this yet but it happens all the time so again it appears to be an accepted practice because no one seems to flip out the way I would if it happened to me and I was waiting and waiting and waiting for someone to arrive.
Although now that I think about it this did happen the day of my birthday party last October. Even as late as 1 hour before my party I received confirmation calls RSVP’ing to my party but then the people never showed up. I’ve never experienced that before. In Spain or California, we actually ring to give a courtesy call that we can’t make it so people don’t wait or worry. Here it is the opposite.
Every country has different tolerances to all sorts of behaviours and traits, customs and traditions. I’m starting to mellow out about Indian Standard Time. Hell, I’m sort of starting to embrace it if I really want to be completely honest about it. For me, India is the most efficient country I’ve ever lived in with respect to accomplishing certain feats in a truly mind-boggling short about of time. My favourite example is my residency and work visa, which took 7 days. In Spain it takes 6-8 weeks and from what I understand about the U.S. it actually takes months. So if that means dealing with meetings that start a bit late and being the first one to arrive for a night out on the town…I can live with that!