This is sometimes used in a pejorative sense, about tardiness in appointments, meetings and events. This also includes the more leisurely, relaxed, and less rigorously-scheduled lifestyle found in African countries, especially as opposed to the more clock-bound pace of daily life in Western countries.
On my first overseas trip, years ago, I learnt some profond lessons about punctuality. At the Frankfurt Airport in Germany, I was a bit too early for a restaurant. I stood there with a few other diners waiting and wondering why they won’t allow us in. Right on the dot of the opening time, the door flung open. Not a second early, not a second late.
Two weeks later, in Magdeburg, we visited a government official for a briefing. We got there some 15 minutes earlier than scheduled. The host saw us but he continued with what he was doing until the very second of the appointed time.
But all over Africa, no bad habit is perhaps as glorified as African Time. Despite its wasteful nature, it is so common that it has earned entry into dictionaries. Of course, since we cannot control external circumstances like traffic and family emergencies, it is impossible to arrive on time each and every time, but in Africa it has become the norm.
African time (or Africa time), according to Wikipedia, is the perceived cultural tendency, in most parts of Africa, toward a more relaxed attitude to time. This is sometimes used in a pejorative sense, about tardiness in appointments, meetings and events. This also includes the more leisurely, relaxed, and less rigorously-scheduled lifestyle found in African countries, especially as opposed to the more clock-bound pace of daily life in Western countries.
Although not much cost counting has been done at this end, an investigation of the subject in the US, published in USA Today, discussed the cost of tardiness for CEOs. One hypothetical example: If Sanford Weill, at the time the CEO of Citigroup, arrived 15 minutes late to a meeting with his four best-paid lieutenants, it costs the company $4,250, the price of the four employees’ time. (That was in 2002; just think what a similar late arrival could cost today.) Yet, the same argument can be applied to the cost of being early. If those four well-paid employees arrived 15 minutes before Weill got to the meeting, that still would have cost the company $4,250 in wasted time. In both scenarios, time is money.
But based on many other considerations, African Time is a lot more wasteful. In Nigeria, many events start hours late, and run on and on. The Western world is not entirely free of guilt but lateness, at worst, is mostly by only a couple minutes.
And according to experts, while some people are always on time because they don’t want to be tardy, some other people run late because they don’t want to be too early. Some feel that if they arrive too early, they may appear to be too as desperate. Other reasons for lateness, according to experts are that:
It is inefficient. Being early requires having to sit around with nothing to do. The waiting time is just short to do any other project; as soon as you start, the time is up.
The uneasiness of being early. They feel awkward and uncomfortable waiting. They might even feel as if others are watching and judging them, whether this is true or not. Arriving a few minutes early makes you feel proud and confident, but arriving too early can make you feel foolish.
Opportunity Cost: There is an opportunity cost associated with getting somewhere too early. The lost time could have been used productively elsewhere.
Politeness: Sometimes you do not want to be early to be polite. You may not want to disturb someone by getting there too soon—say, a friend’s dinner party—so you would rather get there a little late.
Reasons for African Time
All the above reasons for lateness aside, the uniqueness of African Time has been traced to the polychronic nature of African cultures. People tend to manage more than one thing at a time rather than in a strict sequence as it is done the monochronic cultures of the Western world.
A monochronic time system means that things are done one at a time. Time is segmented into precise, small units. Under this system time is scheduled, arranged and managed.
Germany and the United States are considered to be monochronic societies. This perception of time is learned and rooted in the Industrial Revolution, where “factory life required the labor force to be on hand and in place at an appointed hour”. For Americans, time is a precious resource not to be wasted or taken lightly.
Polychronicity time system is a one where several things can be done at once, and a more fluid approach is taken to scheduling time. Examples of polychronic behaviors include: cooking food while watching television or browsing the internet while sitting in meetings. Unlike most Western and East Asian cultures, Latin American, African, South Asian and Arab cultures are said to use polychronic systems of time.
Polychronic people do many things at once, concentrate on events happening around them, easily lose focus, and change plans often and easily.