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Learning to tell time – in Mexico

A newly relocated American learns when to climb out a window to get to a meeting on time, among other lessons.

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    A Volkswagen Beetle drives through the streets of Monterrey, where an American reporter recently learned how to tell time the Mexican way.
    Daniel Becerril/Reuters/File
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A few weeks ago, I showed up to a lunch meeting 20 minutes late. I was embarrassed, frazzled, and had literally climbed out of a window to get there.

But when I showed up at the restaurant in a strip mall in Monterrey – sweaty, hands covered in dirt, and mentally exhausted from trying to map my escape from the building I’d accidentally been locked into – the restaurant was empty.

I sent a message to the woman I was meeting: “I’m here. I’m so sorry…. I don’t see you.”

She wouldn’t show up for another 30 minutes; almost an hour later than our original meeting time.

I felt silly for sending out updates for a measly 20-minute delay when my lunch date hadn’t thought to message me once, even though she was creeping up on the hour mark. But I didn’t find it rude. It was just a wake-up call that I really had no clue how to interpret time here.

Time is one of the stickier issues facing anyone living or working abroad. Whereas an American in the United States might know that “just a second” could mean up to a five-minute wait, how should that same person interpret “right now,” ahorita, in Mexico? (Look out: You might be waiting over an hour). These are subtleties that take a while to fully grasp, and as I learned in Monterrey, even when you think you “get it,” there’s a chance you don’t.

When I moved here seven months ago, I knew to expect social engagements to start late. Yet I was still surprised recently when my husband and I showed up two hours late to a birthday party, and still beat the rest of the guests by another two hours. (Mexican friends responded to this anecdote by saying that “at least the hosts were there” when we arrived.)

There are lots of stereotypes associated with cultures that tend to see "late" as "on time." Some interpret tardiness as a sign of laziness or being irresponsible. But in fact, Mexicans work incredibly long days. 

I’m still adjusting to interviews scheduled nonchalantly for 10:00 pm, or canceled at midnight. There are restaurants in my neighborhood that are busy serving the lunch crowd at 5 p.m., and while I take an after-work stroll, those diners are heading back to the office.

recent ranking by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development placed Mexico second-to-last in terms of work-life balance. Nearly 30 percent of Mexicans work 50-hour weeks, whereas in the US some 11 percent of citizens work those same "very long hours," according to the report.

One of the better explanations I’ve read about the difference in attitudes toward time between Mexico and the US is this, from an article for “Global Business Languages” and published by Perdue University.

…[M]onochronic cultures like the U.S. [are] “clock-obsessed, schedule-worshipping cultures.”

People from polychronic cultures such as Mexico have much more flexible attitudes toward time, and are less obsessive about punctuality and deadlines. They place a higher value on relationships than on fixed schedules and timelines.

I appreciate that the people I’ve met so far value taking the time to get to know a foreigner like me – even if the conversation starts a little later than expected.  

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