Some stereotypes, such as the tardiness of the Latin people, are seen as universal truths. But are they really so?
World renown for being less than punctual, Spain is often described as an eternal mañana culture where everything and everyone is behind schedule. There are of course exceptions to such broad national claims, and there certainly are some Spanish people who are punctual. However, speaking for our small town in the Spanish south, and for the vast majority of its residents, the concept of being ‘on time’ tends to have rather flexible parameters. We knew about this trait prior to moving here, although it’s one thing being aware of a tendency towards lateness, but another learning to live with the locals’ open-ended más o menos, more or less, schedule. To this end, I decided to do a bit of cultural exploration and to ponder some of the reasons why the Spanish, or certainly the Southern Spanish, can never arrive at the exact minute or hour they say that they will be in a certain location.
Devices to measure time can be traced back thousands of years, so promptness should by now have become second nature to the human race. But it isn’t always so. Though everybody in Ronda carries at least one mechanical or digital timepiece on their person, and though every bar, butcher, pharmacy and many street corners have a wall-mounted clock, and though the towns church bells will chime every 15 minutes reminding one of the incessant passing of time, you can never expect that a meeting will happen at the agreed-upon hour. I am not speaking about merely social engagements (when even us Norwegians will allow ourselves to be a few minutes late), but any scheduled appointments, be it to set up a will at a Notary Public, to get a handyperson to do some basic house repairs, to get a root canal, or to get to ones own wedding.
Even after a few weeks here, we were aware that if a contractor promised he would be at our house within the hour, we might expect to see him there some time that afternoon, but more likely the following day. If he pledged he would come by during the next week, we knew for a fact that we would not see him for at least a fortnight, and if he guaranteed that he would deal with the job the following month, we might as well forget about the whole business. We have on several occasions witnessed locals answering their phone claiming that they were en camino (on their way) to the next job, while the truth is that the person, who happened to be a plumber, had their head deep under our sink with no possibility of imminent departure. Likewise, they might just have sat down to order their daily mid-morning Anís, while promising someone at the other end of the cell line that they are seconds away.
Now, the first thing one has to be aware of when it comes to the Andalusians’ sense of timing, is that none of these pie-in-the-sky promises are spoken with malice. Nobody sees them as lies, least of all the person speaking them. It is all about intention. In the speakers mind, they are already on their way – their physical body just needs to catch up with their verbal aptness to comply.
Secondly, one has to take into account the nature of the people themselves, whose character and temperament are more passionate and thus generally more spontaneous than people from northern climates. Just as we overly punctual Scandinavians might see tardiness as rude, the Spanish might see our Norse innate always-early-for-appointment tendency as proof of our lack of ability to enjoy life. There seems to be fundamental differences in our make-up, culturally or genetically.
Thirdly, the Andalusians’ notion of the clock is completely different. They are perfectly aware that they tend to be late-ish, but since everybody is the same and all know the rules of conduct, there is usually no problem. When we began hiking with a group of Andalucians, they often joked about la hora inglésa (English or actual time), as opposed to la hora española (Spanish or alternative time), of course preferring and following the latter. To them, what mattered most was not that we took off at 8.30 am sharp, but that all had managed to enjoy a coffee prior to our departure. So what if we were half an hour delayed? Nobody suffered in the process, other than possibly us, the anal foreigners with our petty punctuality.
Forth, there is the thing about the language itself. While midday for an English speaker means noon or twelve o’clock, mediodía in Spanish has a much broader scope. If you tell someone that you will meet them at mediodía, they will agree and then proceed to ask you when you are meeting, at 1.30 or 2 pm?
To add to the verbal confusion, in Spanish, mañana means both tomorrow and morning, only distinguished with the use of a preposition. To point out that it is in the morning you would say por la mañana, while when you are indicating the following day, a plain mañana will do. This being said, we know that mañana is the most overused expression in the Spanish language and some, like the saying goes, believe that mañana never comes.
Equally, the word tarde means both afternoon and late, again depending on whether one adds a preposition. En la tarde means in the afternoon, while a plain tarde means late. In addition, the Spanish use the word tarde for both the afternoon and the evening, so if someone tells you to meet them a las diez de la tarde, they want to meet you at 10 in the ‘afternoon’… Generally, everyone is tarde. They will enjoy a prolonged siesta with outmost pleasure, knowing fully well that they ought to be some place else. Then they will rush to get to their next destination, driving like mad, of course arriving late.
When it comes to private social engagements the concept of time is even more malleable. While we had been used to give the hostess a five-minute grace period before arriving at a dinner in North America, here in Andalucía one has to allow for a much wider buffer zone. We learned this when we were invited to a private luncheon. Not only was the hostess heading for the shower when we arrived at the agreed upon hour, but the table was not set. In fact, the table was nowhere to be seen, never mind that some forty-something invitees were slowly streaming into the garden. After festive liquids were offered all around, sawhorses and plywood boards were brought out on the terrace to construct said table. Then, and only then were the meal prepared under jolly conversation, ready to be feasted upon just a couple of hours later.
The most extreme example of late arrivals happened when we attended our first Andalucian surprise party. The event was to take place in a small town outside of Ronda. The hostess, the sweetest, shortest, roundest Andalusian village-mayor you will ever meet, had told the dozens of guests to arrive at 8 pm, giving a full hour to conceal our cars and other evidence of life and to prepare for jumping out from our hiding places and call out Sorpresa! Swinging into the driveway of said home, we were a little alerted (if not surprised) not to see a soul, nor a sign that there would be a party there in a mere 60 minutes. Had they hidden it that well? We knocked on the door and the hostess finally came out, dressed in sweat pants, telling us without the slightest concern that we were the first to arrive.
Sensing the urgency of time ticking by, we offered to help her prepare – me blowing up balloons until my lounges nearly collapsed, while my husband and the bubbly hostess took off to the nearest bar to pick up ice and beverages. While we hung the Felicitaciones banner above the door and ignited the fire for the BBQ that soon should feed many hungry guests, our hostess wondered whether she maybe ought to call the wife of the celebrant to see if she could invent some delay, since nobody else had arrived and it was now only 30 minutes to the grand Sorpresa time. The wife of the apparently unaware celebrant made up a last minute emergency at her work to stall things. Meanwhile at party central, the grill was almost ready to receive the meat and another sawhorse table was built. To our joy, a second car arrived just 15 few minutes before our jump out moment. The hostess was again on the phone with the wife, now in the car with her husband, the celebrant, and therefore answering in code language. She told him, much to his chagrin, that she simply had to stop to buy cigarettes before they would drop by and pick up a friend, the sad mayor who was all alone and whom they would take for dinner. Three couples out of seven had arrived when the hour was up, the wife’s delay being the only reason why the guest of honour wasn’t present yet.
Needless to say, we finally got our Sorpresa moment. The celebrant seemed genuinely surprised, or at least happy to see us, and only a couple of hours later the last of the guests swung into the property, bringing desserts and good cheers.
So, what is the surprise at the epitome of tardiness – an Andalucian surprise party? The surprise is whether not some, but any of the guests will arrive before the guest of honour…
I am still none the wiser as to my original question of whether the Spanish will ever be on time. In general, I doubt it, and I would certainly not recommend anyone who expects punctuality to live in a Latin country. Certainly here, down in the deep Spanish south, you have to learn to go with the flow, peak at your watch with half shut eyes and order another glass of tinto while you wait. And wait…