Indian Standard Time Means Always Being Late

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.

On time, a couple of minutes late, 30 minutes late…or even HOURS! Everyone in India has their own version of Indian Standard Time.

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 OctoberEven 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!

XOXO Angela

© 2012 Angela Carson

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Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I've explored 32 countries on 4 continents, residing in 7 of them (currently Kuala Lumpur is my home). By day I'm a digital nomad and by night I'm a passionate storyteller. I even have a private pilot's license and was shot at once by bandits!
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28 Comments on “Indian Standard Time Means Always Being Late

  1. lol… then you should hear about Arabian Standard Time, it’s much more messed up than Indian Standard Time 🙂

  2. I can totally understand. Being an Indian I have been at the receiving end also :). I turned up at MY wedding reception on time expecting guests to be there already but to my surprise , i was the first guy .

      • It really used to get on my nerves especially because my father has always been very punctual and taught us that too. After 30 years of my life, now I have stopped getting frustrated and with technology at hand, I try and find something useful to do or read in the mean time.

  3. Hmmm. Quite a good thought. I do have a quite different take on this. Basically in India I too have come across lack of attention for meetings. Only because if we consider this as office meeting, most often, it is considered as just a decision to be made, than discussed. I come across many meetings in which Managers with their colleagues pre-decides what needed to be reported and just call a meeting to put forth than anything to debate on their decision. And most often Indians are attention seekers basically, and when they had this experience many times, they don’t give any preference for any meeting as such. That makes them even late for anything. You can see in any meetings particularly in Indian offices, decisions are made only by few friends(managers) who would have come to that decision out of the meeting hours at their desk or coffee shops, or smoking times. Everyone knows that. I had many instances as such. One was in a company in which, basically around 20 people were working for Accounts department for quite a long time, and a meeting was called to put forth a presentation which mentions that the whole team will be converted to Customer care and even after years of experience. Now to tell you, there wasn’t any discussion or any suggestions were taken to think of it. Just made a decision. Now who will give a thought on attending a meeting when decisions are predefined. And for that why would anyone be interested when their thoughts are not even heard. This experience I have seen in many companies. So is employees to believe. That makes them even in their life so called “Being late” so that they are being recognized. Simple as that. But however yes, I liked this article.

    -Rohit

  4. Alternatively, one can embrace Indian “Stretchable” Time by the appropriately named “Ish” watch, as seen on Design Fetish. http://www.designfetish.org/2012/03/ish-watch-for-fashionably-late.html

    “A watch where the hours are slightly off of their traditional positions. A humorous take on being late. This watch was originally made for India where apparently being late is always an issue, but I guess its safe to say that this watch works for almost anyone…”

    • hahahaha omg I have never seen that before. FANTASTIC!! Thanks for sharing that. Hope all is well and wonderful you guys! -A

  5. M’dm, actually in respect of being late in India is crowned as ” Being Smart”, and being punctual is ordained as “Being a Nugget”. So, everyone here in India always choose to be ‘Smart’ and no to be a ‘Nugget’.

    • I can see that in social situations but at work I truly believe that companies need to become more tough as it is such a massive waste of time and money! Nugget or not, hehe 🙂

  6. It’s not that people are disrespecting you when they are late, but it is a sort of social thing. I notice especially in gatherings that no-one wants to go at the stated time because there will not be many people there to talk to as everyone follows IST.
    There is also this thing where people just don’t have a concept of how much time it will take to get ready and travel to a place to get there on time. I am sure most people know how long the traffic will mess with their schedule, but they think the other person can wait! In the West it is seen as waste and disrespect to be late. In India people are so much more laid back about when things will get done because of the human element involved in any exchange.
    Having spent more of my life in the West, I prefer being on time!

    • Hi Aruna, I prefer to be on time as well 🙂 Drives me coo coo when my mates are super late, but even more so at the office when it is such a waste of time and resources. -A

  7. I can understand people being late for reasons like traffic or being fashionably late even, but to make it a norm to say they’ll meet you and not bother I don’t like.

  8. The clock up there is too very extra much funny 😀

  9. Hi Angela, Interesting blog, have been reading it for a while now. I have a suggestion for you if thats ok! Why dont you setup a ‘kiity jar’ and ask the meeting invitees to put cash into the jar (x minutes late * 1 rupee 😉 and then you can use the cash to donate it to your favourite charity.
    Am pretty sure people will be punctual atleast for your meeting once you start doing it 😉

    • OMG I love that idea! You rock, thanks for the super suggestion…now let’s see if I can implement it 🙂 And thanks for reading the blog. Hope you’ll continue -ange

  10. I am an Indian living in Germany. I used to live in Mumbai, where I was often off by an hour. here in Germany, I complain when I miss a tram, and I have to wait for the next one ten minutes later. (Being Indian, I still am late for the tram I am supposed to take :P). What is funny is , I often make academic trips to switzerland where the swiss people complain ‘the Germans are never on time.’!!! wait when a swiss gets to India.

    • hahahahaa that is too funny. Life is soooo subjective. What is normal for one person could be completely abnormal for another. You and I are both experiencing that every day in our new homes 🙂 When I lived in Spain I had a German boss and his expectations of all of us on the team was really frustrating at times because it was just too “german” and none of us had it in us — not me and not the Spaniards. Enjoy your adventure!! -angela

  11. Well, no body can live up to the expectations of the Germans except Germans!!! I am reading your articles. well written enjoyable and insightful articles, congratulations. enjoy your stay in India.

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  14. Well if you start thinking of the concept of time in India as being purely “indicative”, I think you’ll do just fine! 🙂 As far as the work environment is concerned, it’s not always like that – just depends on the organization and the person who drives the culture in it. LOVE the watch though – I need to get one! 🙂

    P.S. I liked your wine post. Have you tried the Chardonnay Semillon yet? That’s my other favorite indian white, apart from the Viognier. 🙂

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  18. I have a list of people whom I’m gonna gift that watch to!

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