Sunday, May 18, 2008


When it is 9am in Palo Alto, what time is it Delhi? 9:30pm. That's Indian Standard Time. All cities in India are on the same time zone. Because India does not observe day light savings time, Indians never have to move their clocks forward or backward.

Now, when you are supposed to meet friends at 9pm, and they show up at 9:45pm, that's also IST - Indian Stretchable Time. Indian Stretchable Time is the phenomenon of Indians viewing a meeting time as an approximate time instead of an actual time. IST is a manifestation of the general philosophy of indirect communication - "I don't mean what I say - but based upon what I said and how I said it, you should infer what I really mean". It's also a manifestation of the philosophy that if something comes up, then I have to deal with it and push other things back, including my meeting with you. Of course, if I aplogize about being late, then all is forgiven, right?

Different cultures view punctuality differently. In Western countries (US, UK, Canada, etc.) a small amount of lateness (up to 15 minutes is tolerated in social situations, 5 minutes in a business setting) is tolerated. In countries like Switzerland and Japan, no amount of lateness is tolerated. In many South American and African countries, meeting times are viewed as approximate.

Growing up in a Western country but being part of a large Indian community, I have witnessed both the Western and the Indian methods of time treatment. My American friends would generally come on time and my Indian friends generally would not. I was also involved in both Western and Indian music. When going to Western music concert, there would be pin drop silence in the concert hall and the concert would start exactly at the stated time. If you were even 1 minute late, you would not be allowed inside the concert hall until the first piece was completed (perhaps 20 minutes later). Contrast that with the my experience at an Indian concert, which started 15 - 30 minutes late and which had late arrivers trickling in up to an hour later.

For the first part of my life, I fell more into the Indian category in that I treated meeting times as approximate. But a few years after college, I began to make a concerted effort to be on time.

The system of approximate times is just too complex to be pratical. If a party, add 30 minutes - 1 hour to the stated time for your arrival time, if meeting for dinner add 15 minutes - 30 minutes to the stated time for your arrival time, etc. Now what happens if the organizer has a different time philosophy than you do? Then he might be thinking that you'll come 5 minutes late while you are thinking that 30 minutes is acceptable. Why engage in this game when you can just mean the time that you said and try hard to be on time?

IST (the stretchable kind) is one aspect of Indian culture that I reject completely. I don't believe in taking liberties with friends and family. Your time is valuable, so don't you think your friends' and family's time is valuable too? You wouldn't want your time wasted so why waste someone else's time? The key to punctuality is discipline. If you are chronically late, here are some steps you can take to be on time:

1) Take your time before you suggest a meeting time. The difference between being on time and being late is often how realistic the meeting time was. Can you really make the 4pm time you suggested? Think backwards about all the things you need to do and how long each thing will take - then add some extra time as a buffer - then suggest your meeting time.

2) If there is just too much variablity in your schedule, then suggest a range for the meeting time. Instead of saying "I'll be there at 6pm" say "I'll be there between 6 and 6:30pm, probably more towards 6:30pm because I have xyz to do first." The other person will be grateful and plan his / her time appropriately so he / she doesn't waste the time between 6pm and 6:20pm (if you arrived at 6:20pm).

3) If you are going to be late due to circumstances beyond your control, then let everyone know as soon as possible. Also, provide an accurate, revised meeting time (i.e. not "I'll be there in 5 minutes" when in fact you are still 15 kms away).

4) Related to the previous point, once you have become very late, the other person / party has the right to reschedule, adapt the plan, or cancel completely. If the person decides to do any of the above, don't take it personally.

Being punctual is a sign of respect that you are showing to the person / people you are meeting with. Besides, whether a business meeting or a movie, you'll enjoy the whole experience more if you're on time and not rushing or apologizing for being late.

If you'd like to read more about this subject, check out the links below:


raghavandr said...

I understand your frustration and totally agree with your final and conclusion and decision. I have been both a culprit and victim of this peculiar Indian phenomenon of 'Stretchable Time'. We have had people arriving at some parties in our house, so late that the other guests would be dying of hunger but still out of politeness will offer to wait. By the same token, what we also do is not prepare ahead of time and so in the last minute scramble for things like what to wear,what to take as a gift, directions to their place, take a detour to buy a card and the like. So I am totally with you on this.

raghavandr said...

The alarm clock in the title is very appropriate!

Anonymous said...

Yes I agree with you. However, Indians are now becoming more conscious about this, and increasingly more number of people are trying to do away with the concept of Indian Stretchable Time. Things like this will help them to improve further.


Ravi Ragahvan said...

I will say that Manjusha is one of a handful of Indians I have met / worked with who is always on time.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. I hope you get to see and work with more punctual Indians.


Ravi Ragahvan said...

From my aunt Malathy Aunty:

can you try correcting their ways? then the Indians will take over the whole world. Let their imperfections remain and irritate people so they don't give them all the U.S. businesses away.

Connie Wu said...

Hey Ravi, this looks awesome and I can't wait to start my own journal online in China! What an amazing experience you are having. This is terrific!!!