June 24, 2024

on time

philadelphia's city hall with gray clouds overhead
photo caption: the city hall of philadelphia, pennsylvania. this is not, as i might have guessed once, the capitol building. nor is it independence hall. nor the governor’s mansion. it’s just a tall old building with a clock on it. i like it!

My extended family was very social when I was growing up. The Sri Lankan community in Austin, Texas is one of the largest outside of the island itself. Once or twice a month someone in the community would throw a dinner party at their house. These were nothing like the snooze-fest conception of a “dinner party” I have in my head. Short-eats, drinking, dinner, dessert, and often dancing happened at these lively all-night parties.

We kids usually huddled upstairs watching TV or playing video games. We started to joke about a concept that seemed unique to our families: Sri Lankan Time.

When my achchi and seeya threw a party, they might have asked their guests to arrive at 7:00 pm. Most people would start to trickle in around 7:30, 8:00—sometimes even later. One patriarch’s tardiness was so chronic that it became a joke to the rest of us. Some families went as far as inviting him an hour earlier than everyone else. He would arrive fashionably late along with the other guests. But no matter when guests arrived, we welcomed them with a drink and a snack before they settled in with the rest of us.

other people’s time

My Sri Lankan friends and I used to joke about Sri Lankan Time when I was a kid. As the children of first- or second-generation immigrants, time felt important to us. American culture is very time-oriented. Schools marked time throughout the day with loud bells in every room. Shops and services have strict opening and closing times. Restaurants take reservations that may expire after 15 minutes.

I think my peers and I recognized that time was important in the culture we were born into. Punctuality felt like the norm; lateness was the outlier. It was only later that I learned from many people of color that they all had their own version of Sri Lankan Time. These went by names like CPT, Island Time, Indian Standard Time, and more.

It turns out that for most of the global majority, being on time isn’t something that you have to strive for. You get there when you get there and people will still be happy to see you. People who grew up with punctuality feel the same alienness when they leave the u.s. One american in India didn’t like that even executives showed up late to their own meetings. She couldn’t believe “how much time and money is wasted due to our inability to efficiently start a meeting at the appointed time.” Later in the article, she conceded that the services she accessed were very efficient. Even with their lackadaisical attitude towards time.

What would it look like if time wasn’t as important as it is here? What if american culture wasn’t so preoccupied with punctuality?

america off time

No more penalties. Punctuality is a fake virtue! This might be hard to swallow for perpetually punctual people like me. It’s an arbitrary means of control for people who aren’t on time. Service providers can refuse you if you miss a strict appointment time. If you get stuck in traffic, take too long to get ready, or catch a late bus after work, you may not get what you need. People who are late to work could face docked pay or even termination. And for what? Why are people so expendable?

Instead, what if a job’s start and end times were more flexible? What if everyone rated their workers’ success more on how well they did their job and less on when they showed up? A more relaxed approach to time could even shift the entire concept of a 9-5 job—or, as is more often the case these days, 8-6 (!!!).

No more excuses. We all know that life happens. With a strict social penalty on lateness, people in the tardy class may have to lie to others about why they’re late. Despite whatever guilt a person may feel about being late, the reasons don’t matter. We shouldn’t have to invent a good one just to get on with our lives.

Instead, what if everyone apologized and moved on? Could it reduce traffic speeds when people aren’t racing to make some event on the other side of town? Traveling across a city might look different if people didn’t have to be somewhere at an exact time.

More flexibility. My mentor Vivian likes to say, “we show respect to our peers when we start meetings on time.” I get that, especially in meeting-heavy offices. But when I had back-to-back meetings, I was almost guaranteed to leave one meeting late and show up late to the next. What if the expectation was that most people would show up late?

What if we structured meetings to take lateness into account? If you showed up half an hour late, how could we still include you without it feeling like an imposition? What if we held more discussions without the time-bound requirements of a meeting? Instead of giving people an appointment for services, what if we gave them a range of time? Accommodated more, or even centered, walk-ins?

When I start to imagine a world without punctuality, the benefits build up. Less adherence to strict office schedules lead to more support to people with odd hours. There would be equal support for night owls (me) and morning people (sadly, me).

time out

To be honest, I’m punctual to a fault. But I bristle against the concepts of exact meeting times even as I conform to them.

I remember back in my youth another way we used Sri Lankan Time. When it was time to leave, the adults would linger past the living room, still talking, still laughing. They might make it as far as the front door before accepting an offer for a quick cup of tea. Now, many years later, I realize that we were all enjoying each other’s company. Wringing out the last few drops of our night together.

There are more important things than arriving and leaving on time. Wouldn’t it be nice to focus on those instead?

photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space