German Punctuality
Imposing an Artificial Beat on Life

Punctuality is learnt behaviour.
Punctuality is learnt behaviour. | Photo (detail): © janonkas -

It is still hard to imagine life in Central Europe functioning properly without punctuality, yet the dictates of the clock are really nothing but a hangover from the industrialization era and are pretty much on the way out as far as modern time researchers are concerned.

Two people want to get together, so they arrange to meet at a particular time. Say 2 pm. Person A arrives five minutes ahead of the agreed time, orders a coffee and leafs idly through a magazine. At 2.15, person B, slightly out of breath, arrives at the table where person A is already comfortably ensconced. B apologizes for being late, saying that he received an important phone call just before leaving. Both smile, everything is alright.

If you are from Central Europe or Germany, it is highly probable that you will regard this scenario as being entirely natural. People arrange to meet at a specific time, do their best to be punctual and apologize if they are late.

The invention of punctuality

In reality, however, just about everything about this situation is a highly-complex cultural construct. Almost nothing about the way in which people arrange to meet is natural, and almost everything is learnt behaviour – especially what we know as punctuality.

”Punctual behaviour goes against the natural human sense of time”, says Karlheinz Geißler, an emeritus professor of business and economics education and one of the most frequently-cited German experts in the cultural history of time perception. “Human beings are not born punctually, do not die punctually, but have to be made punctual.” Punctuality, explains Geißler, is essentially a nineteenth-century invention: it was not until the age of industrialization that the mass production of mechanical clocks allowed specific times to be generally pinpointed, thereby giving the observance of the time of day increasing social relevance.

Living one’s life by the clock became a virtue and punctuality became one of the most important characteristics of “new, modern” men and women. “The new man and woman were to be objectified, quantified, and redefined in clockwork and mechanistic language. Above all, their life and their time would be made to conform to the regimen of the clock, the prerequisites of the schedule, and the dictates of efficiency”, writes American sociologist Jeremy Rifkin in his classic work Time Wars. The Primary Conflict in Human History. Before the clock was invented, it was virtually impossible to precisely time-coordinate human activities, yet industrialization made this absolutely essential. Punctuality became a large-scale educational mandate for the emerging industrial society.

De-programming society

It is still thought that this worked particularly well in Central Europe, and especially in Germany. The huge differences in the way other cultures coordinate their time and their lives illustrate just how very artificial the so frequently cited “German punctuality” actually is, however. A person arranging to meet someone in a culture with which they are not familiar often has to relearn their approach to punctuality: when might one expect the other person to turn up, if at all? How much significance should be attributed to a late arrival? What sort of apology can be expected and is considered acceptable? Is it perhaps even impolite to arrive punctually at the agreed time?

And even in our apparently so consistent Central European understanding of punctuality there are discrepancies: while it was long the case in the Central European culture that it was hard to imagine a person being reliable if he or she was not punctual, this is now most certainly the case. “We can be reliable despite being unpunctual – by making a phone call”, says Karlheinz Geißler. Fewer and fewer people are living their lives by the clock in other areas, too. Television on demand will become the norm, newspaper articles can be read online at any time, and radio programmes listened to later in the form of podcasts. “We are de-programming our society”, predicts time researcher Karlheinz Geißler.

Rhythm rather than beat

It almost appears to some extent as if we were gradually achieving something that countless books have been advising us to do for years: namely to ‘slow down’ and defy the dictates of the clock which impose an artificial ‘beat’ on our lives. We need to replace this beat – by definition a fixed, unyielding repetition – once again with rhythm, that is to say repetition with flexibility.

As a matter of fact, it is indeed rhythm that gives time structure to all living things. Biologists have discovered that a clock ticks in every cell, the “biological clock” of the circadian rhythm that governs our entire existence. It determines when we wake up, when we grow tired, and the cycle according to which our organs function. “These body clocks control our physiology, behaviour and experience. All these internal clocks are synchronized via the light from the sun, oscillating in unison to bring us through the day and the night”, explains Freiburg-based time researcher and psychologist Marc Wittmann. We cannot directly perceive our biological clock, but we can and should take the signals our bodies give us more seriously: when am I at peak performance? When would it be better to take a break?

“Nowadays, we have a great opportunity to live more according to our own natural rhythm again rather than according to the clock”, says time researcher Geißler. In any case, even so-called German punctuality is increasingly becoming a cliché which, if at all, only scratches the surface of reality. “If we really think about it, the punctuality of the Germans is actually merely an effect of the intricacy of their time organization”, believes Geißler. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we always manage to be punctual as a result.”