Several years ago, my family was invited to a dinner party. The hosts had informed everyone that the party was starting at 7PM. My family showed up at 7.15PM, and my parents had an apology ready. We stood outside the door for about 10 minutes ringing the bell, and rapping the door like a bunch of loons. When no one opened the door, we headed back home feeling rather foolish, and ordered pizza for dinner.
At about 9.30PM, my mother got a call from the rather irate party organiser demanding to know where we were. My mother said she thought the party was cancelled because we'd come at 7.15PM, waited and gone back. I overheard that woman’s screechy voice over the phone yelling, "Ya but when I said 7, I meant 8.30PM."
My dad noticed the look of confusion on my face, rolled his eyes, and then proceeded to tell me about "IST" or "Indian Stretchable Time".
I think almost every Indian I know is familiar with the concept of "IST". Don’t get me wrong, I actually love how our culture believes that time stretches on forever, and how we are tolerant and flexible enough to accept delays on the part of others. But when we make it a point to show up an hour to two hours late at every single event, and take undue advantage of our cultural tolerance towards late-coming, it starts to rankle. There are those who don’t even bother to apologize for coming late.
I may be a little too sensitive about the issue, probably due to my Singaporean upbringing, which taught me that being tardy is to insult others who have taken the trouble to be punctual. There is an infamous Singaporean saying, “Time is Money”, which nicely sums up exactly how precious a commodity time is for most Singaporeans. Showing up late to school would get you a detention of scrubbing the boys’ toilets with a toothbrush and a capful of JIF. Showing up late to parties is considered a deep insult to the hosts, and showing up late to work could get you everything from a yelling from your boss, to a verbal warning from HR.
Should the world become more accommodating of our cultural proclivity to stretch time? And should I be tolerant to those who apply “IST” to the workplace? So many Indian executives I’ve dealt with do everything from showing up an hour late to business meetings, to simply not responding to phone calls, text messages or work emails. I’ve had Indian colleagues who showed up 20 minutes to an hour late to work every day. And I have recruiter friends who’ve recounted horror stories about candidates who showed up half an hour to an hour late to job interviews. In 9 out of 10 cases, those candidates were Indian. One of the recruiters, an Indian herself, told me about a client who actually asked if late coming was an Indian cultural thing, and if so, was it wise to hire an Indian?
Clearly, Indian Stretchable Time is a cancerous habit that is now encroaching into India’s professional and business identity, and needs to be eradicated before it becomes too deeply entrenched. And I strongly believe the change needs to start at the root of where it all began - Indian parties. The worst offenders ought to be made to stand outside the party venue with the sign from my old school discipline master - "I'm a late-coming fool" hanging around their necks. And as part of the party entertainment, they should be asked to clean the men's bathroom with a toothbrush and a cap full of detergent, while we send the occasional drunk in there to take a leak - preferably all over them. That would teach those over-dressed aunties and uncles who love to show up 2 hours late to make a 'grand' entry, a much needed lesson.
I admit being at a loss to dealing with tardy clients and business contacts, and would love to hear non-violent, Legal and hopefully witty solutions from the wise and wonderful readers of The NRI.