Please Be On Time

| Sat Dec. 11, 2010 12:20 PM EST

Matt Yglesias likes the Germanic devotion to punctuality:

I find the American thing where you’re supposed to show up late for everything but exactly how late depends on the precise details of the situation to be incredibly stressful. I’m really compulsive about time in a way that most people I know find very annoying. Germans (and Swiss) have this right. Pick a time and stick to it!

I agree. But it can bite you in the ass, too. I remember one time a few years ago, back when I still worked for a living, doing a roadshow thing in Europe for a couple of weeks. It was the same deal in every city: two or three PowerPoint presentations about the greatness of our product line and then everyone goes home. In Zurich, though, I never even got to finish. The invitations had said that we were going from — well, I don't remember. But something like 10 am to 11:30. And that day we were running a little late. Maybe ten minutes or so, no big deal. Or so I thought. I was last to speak, and at 11:30 the room practically started seething. Not just a bit of fidgeting or some discreet looking at watches, but loud and definite notebook closing and chair moving, people standing up and congregating around the door, etc. It was all so obvious that I just gave up, skipped to the last slide, and thanked everyone for showing up. The crowd practically bowled me over getting to the door.

I asked about this afterward and our host told me it wasn't unusual at all. In Switzerland, if you say you're going to finish at 11:30, then by God they expect you to be done at 11:30. And woe betide you if you think your presentation is so fascinating that you can get away with a few extra minutes. You can't.

Anyway, consider this a friendly warning about cultural differences if you ever have to speak in Switzerland. There's a reason that people talk about things running with the precision of a Swiss watch.