IT’S THE DIFFERENT interpretations of time and the meaning of punctuality and tardiness, along with the social stigma, if any, attached to either one, that account for asymmetrical expectations with different cultures. While time for developed economies is numerical and inflexible, Filipino time is determined by ritual, and thus ruled by an accepted ambiguity. Time is not considered a precious resource that needs to be conserved and wisely managed, since there’s too much of it available to most.

There are Filipino conventions that apply based on venue, occasion, and habits.

Some cocktail parties for honoring the winners of an election or a fund-raiser against human trafficking, may state a time in the invitation, say 6 p.m. But the invitee (including the guest speaker) routinely adds at least an hour before showing up. Those who mean exactly what they say will need to state both the beginning and end of the event — the function room must be vacated for a midnight event by 8:30 p.m. Those straggling in after that time will have to gate-crash the midnight group.

An office meeting to review pitches of service providers, set at 8:30 a.m. is expected to start on time and woe to the straggler who pops in thirty minutes later with wet hair and a lame excuse about traffic accidents — a motorcycle cut me off.

Venues provide clues to time expectations. A dinner at a restaurant starts on time. The straggler is bound to be given just a dessert by a surly waitress. (You missed the Peking Duck.) One that is hosted at a person’s home starts later than stated. Showing up on time for dinner at a residence is bound to discombobulate the hostess in her hair curlers supervising the florists on where the potted carnations should go, as the band is setting up.

With this game of “reciprocal expectations,” it is impractical to take the designated time on any invitation literally without considering the flexibility dictated by unwritten social rules. Being on the dot can be considered a faux pas for a book launch. (The books aren’t even here yet.)

Event planners now insert a new timeline for “registration” an hour before the event, so the latecomers straggle in on time. This fools very few people who still compute based on the real time of the event.

The early guest finds he has to kill time somewhere else. This chore of wasting time by having a Dead Sea salt scrub and massage may result in actually being late, even by the host’s definition, not to mention smelling like fish for dinner. Reading a book offers some flexibility as the time can be easily adjusted by a bookmark. Thankfully e-books allow one to read from his phone which is a lot better than lugging along a Jeffrey Archer book.

If the event itself is running very late, say a movie premier, which can be over an hour behind (add another hour for being too early), the prospect of simply drifting away to the mall before the host pops up can be tempting. Why not just skip the movie after signing in at the reception desk with an audible sigh — I must have gotten the wrong invitation? It is small revenge (although not clear how effective) against the unpunctual organizers.

Those who ignore the rituals of time are bound to be in a snit. They may avoid social events altogether as expected arrivals get too confusing. Absence anyway seems less socially offensive than being punctual. A tardy guest receives no censure at all. Even when all are having coffee and cakes as the party favors are being distributed, the late arrival is at least greeted with feigned enthusiasm — we thought you got lost.

It’s not that Filipinos are incapable of being on time. Theater latecomers are deliciously punished by being allowed entry only at a suitable break, maybe intermission halfway through the musical. They are made to wait outside while the washrooms have no queue.

Anyway, the socially confident don’t bother to look at their watches. Those who arrive too early find it a form of isometric exercise to rotate their wrists to glance at the time. These strange time-watchers also leave early — often slipping away without fuss and disappearing into the night. Often their exit is hardly noticed, except by the latecomers whom they meet on their way out — leaving so soon?


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.