What makes time so precious in Germany?
What makes time so precious in Germany?
Germans have made something of a name for themselves when it comes to being punctual and meeting deadlines. And, quite frankly, there is a lot of truth in this cliché. Expat coach Kerstin Brandes offers some useful insights about the German way of dealing with time and what this means for expat life in Germany.
It may seem rather strange to hear German people talk about wasting, spending or losing time by doing (or not doing) something. As far as they are concerned, time is measurable and a very scarce resource that they are always short of. This scarcity makes time an extremely precious “commodity” that must be used carefully.
Time – a precious commodity
Thus, “time is money” is not an exclusively American approach. Germany has a highly profit-oriented society in which time flows fast and, if you want to benefit from its passing, you also need to move fast.
“We are losing too much time in this process”, “It will save us time later if we analyse all the risks now”, “Don’t waste my time!”, or “We’ve spent a lot of time discussing this point” - these are all typical phrases one hears in all kinds of situations, either at work or in everyday life.
Just one thing at a time
Closely connected with this perception of time is the fact that German people prefer to do just one thing at a time and within a fixed schedule. They think they get more things done and more efficiently if they concentrate on one thing or person only.
This is the reason why schedules and appointment play such an important role in Germany. If you want to discuss or review something with your colleague or boss, you will need to make an appointment with them. Simply stepping into their office unannounced can easily be perceived as lacking respect and acting unprofessionally. Interrupting someone in the middle of a meeting or conversation to get their signature, opinion or help would be an even more serious blunder.
On the other hand, whenever German people reserve time for you, you will receive 100 percent of their attention. This kind of exclusivity can only be achieved when dealing with one person at a time.
Building trust with time management
Being good at your job means, among other things, you are able to manage your time well. Of course, not even all German people are good at scheduling and prioritising tasks. As managing time is considered a key skill in most jobs though, many companies offer their employees “time management courses” to develop this skill.
Those who meet deadlines and arrive on time for meetings are no doubt considered reliable and trustworthy. This is why managing your time matters so much: if German people consider you as being “punctual”, you have gained a high level of trust. And this will give you some leeway in other areas where you may not yet excel in the same way.
This particular way of perceiving and “managing” time is not limited to the workplace, however. I have seen many foreigners shake their heads in disbelief when they discovered that German people even make appointments with family members. It may seem bizarre to others, but it feels absolutely natural to Germans. Therefore, if someone suggests meeting up for a drink or a coffee, make sure you first fix a day and time with them, before showing up at their home.
What exactly does being “on time” mean?
Once you have scheduled an appointment with someone, they expect you to arrive on time. But what does “on time” mean in Germany? It means you usually arrive a few minutes prior to the arranged time.
This is especially true with new contacts, for instance if you’re meeting a new business partner or friend, attending a job interview, or visiting a public institution. But it also applies to business meetings, dinner parties, classic concerts and theatres. If you arrive late for a concert or a play, you’re in for a real disappointment, as you will only be allowed inside after the first intermission.
Nevertheless, there are a few exceptions to this rule. Informal private parties usually start after the given time. Two small words may indicate whether you will be expected to arrive at the stated time or at any time later. If the invitation reads “um 19 Uhr”, you should arrive at 7 pm. If it reads “ab 19 Uhr”, however, it means you can arrive whenever you wish.
As a rule of thumb, the stated time is the time you are expected to arrive or by which something needs to be done. If in doubt, ask a German colleague, friend or neighbour.
How to get started
If the German way of dealing with time seems completely unnatural to you and makes you feel uncomfortable, start to adjust by making an effort to be on time for selected appointments, such as those with your boss and with clients. Once you feel this works well, you can extend it to more people and situations over time.