Several years ago I was in Vienna visiting a Greek friend who was married to an Austrian woman.

One morning she was preparing to leave the house for some errands and he asked if he could be dropped off in town

“I’ll just go and fetch my jacket,” he said. Because he was taking a minute to gather his things, she called out that she was leaving and promptly exited the house.

He came out thirty seconds later and rushed to the front door, explaining that she had to go and collect the car from the parking bay which was across the street and that she was required to go right past the house anyway, and she would collect him as she went by.

A minute later he was back inside.

“What happened?” I asked.

“She didn’t stop. She went right past me.”

“Why?” I asked, assuming that they must have some kind of marital spat underlining such behaviour.

“Because they’re all f*cking fascists in this country about time. If they say they’re going to be somewhere at a particular time, they can’t be a minute late. She couldn’t spare 30 seconds.”

Needless to say he wasn’t coping too well with life in Austria given the Greek propensity for tardiness and complete disregard for punctuality.

I was reminded of this incident last week when a friend phoned me from Athens for a chat. She is living in Greece for a year with her family and is finding the lack of punctuality a nightmare.

“You invite people for dinner and they don’t ask you what time you would like them to come. They tell you what time they can come. I had two guests coming one night. One arrived arrived at eight, the other after nine,” she despaired.“The food was ruined.”

We had a long chat about this issue and I told her about an exchange with my father the last time we were in Greece. I had asked him early in the week if on Saturday we could go to Kambi in Zakynthos to watch the sunset.

He looked at me as if this was a ludicrous request. “It’s much too early for us to be organising what we’ll be doing on Saturday!”

I’m sure everyone reading this article will relate to these anecdotes, but as I was explaining to my frustrated friend in Athens, this is not a ‘problem’ unique to Greeks.

The Irish, the Italians, the Spaniards (including South America) and the Africans do not place value on being punctual. In some of these cultures the very idea of being punctual has no meaning.

The concept of punctuality is a venerated hallmark of Protestant cultures. Tardiness is only a ‘problem’ for us, because we consider punctuality as important, virtuous even.

We depend on things starting and ending at a particular time. On everything going to plan to make this happen.

Why are we like this? And why aren’t other people the same?

The importance of punctuality arose from the ‘Protestant work ethic’, a term first coined by Max Weber, the German economic sociologist.

There was a need for values such as diligence, punctuality and deferment of gratification to support the shift in attitude towards work that came about during the 16the century.

All this coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the Calvinist branch of Christianity which preached slaving your guts out for little money as a virtue with the promise that it would bring you closer to God.

So when work is the primacy of your existence, everything else has to accommodate that. But as the Greeks and all the non Protestants say: There’s this thing called life and that sometimes gets in the way.

I alighted a bus in Dublin once and asked the bus driver how long it was going to take to reach my destination and he gave me a look as if this was a trick question.

“How can I be expected to answer that, now? Who knows what we’ll encounter on our journey?” He replied. Reading the Irish Times on the same bus, I noted an article saying a European survey ranked Dublin airport the second worst for planes leaving on time.

As frustrating as it can be for us, used to the precision of the Protestant culture in which we live, it’s not necessarily a negative thing when others are different.

This is the way we do things here in Australia, Northern Europe, Japan, the US, England and Canada. It’s not the way the rest of the world is and that’s not necessarily their ‘problem.’

As the famous Irish wit, Oscar Wilde once said:
“He was always late on principle; his principle being that punctuality was the thief of time.”

Jeana Vithoulkas is a freelance journalist and a published author.