Being on Time, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
Everyday Life

Being on Time
This material courtesy of Stephanie S. Landis

Americans place a high value on punctuality. If you make plans with someone, you should be there when you say you will. Three to five minutes early is even better, because it shows that you are really looking forward to spending time with the other person. Most people will allow five or maybe ten minutes late, but more than that is considered bad form. Not showing up at all--called "standing someone up"--is considered very rude and, unless you have a very good reason, the other person may never want to make plans with you again.

In American culture, the commitment to spend time with somone is more important than anything else that might happen. Americans go to great lengths to keep their commitments. Even if their mother called them on the phone, they would say, "Oh, Mom, I can only talk a few minutes, because I'm meeting a friend for lunch. Can I call you back when I get home?" Their mother would not take offense at this, because their pre-existing plans take precedence over all others.

Valid excuses for being late generally involve transportation problems, such as: being stuck in traffic, your car breaking down, unavoidably missing your bus or train, or not being able to get a cab. Being late because you didn't want to miss the end of a TV show or because another friend called you on the phone is not acceptable. If you realize you are going to be late, you should call the other person immediately, explain the situation, apologize, and ask if they would like to meet later or do something else another time.

Not showing up for a date is considered the height of rudeness, so you better have a good reason for it. Valid reasons include: death or serious illness of a close family member, being in a car accident, being sick, or not having child care due to a situation you could not have foreseen (for example, the babysitter didn't show up). If you must miss a date, call the other person immediately, explain what happened, and apologize repeatedly (about five times should do). "I'm so sorry, I feel just awful about it, I hope you can forgive me, but here is what happened..." Is a good way to start this conversation.

Understand that if you are continually late or do not show up for dates, you will get a reputation as someone who does not keep your word. People will consider you a liar and someone not to be trusted, and will not want to be your friend or may not want to do business with you. Being late or not showing up is interpreted as meaning that you never wanted to go out with the person in the first place, and will cause hard feelings.

The rule to remember is: show up a few minutes early or on time. If you must be late, phone the other person at once and explain why. Do not be late repeatedly, and never stand someone up unless you absolutely cannot avoid it.

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