Home About Germany Culture & History Unfashionably early
Last update on November 06, 2019

An American expat learns to change her habits to adapt to her adopted country and ends up annoying locals.

Living in another country, one inordinately confronts the stereotypes one has of the new and adopted home. But what happens when you take them on, literally?

When I lived in the US, I was chronically late. I hate to admit it: People could generally expect to wait for at least 10 minutes for me at restaurants, movie theatres and bars.

Still, in my defence, the habit must be in my genes: My mother couldn’t be on time if her life depended on it. Add to this my very scattered and overwhelmingly busy work life (read: an 80-hour work week) and it is somewhat less inexcusable.

Punctuality in Germany

Still, when I moved to Germany, I knew things would have to change: Life in the land of “Pünktlichkeit” and “Ordnung” would be a challenge if I continued on with my sad ways. I was ready. Besides, I wanted to fit in.

So like most things, I overdid it − I am now überpünktlich − and it has had all kinds of strange consequences including driving my German colleagues and friends nuts.

For example, one of my German friends who is rarely late, started to get annoyed when she arrived to meet me and I was already there: I stole her thunder (and her pride in her punctuality).

At one job, if I didn’t arrive 10 minutes before my shift started as I usually did, I would get calls wondering what was wrong and asking whether I would be in at all.

Another time, I overestimated the time it took to get to a specific movie theatre across town, arriving 30 minutes early. As I was mulling how to pass the time before my friend showed up, there she was: “And I thought just once, I would beat you here,” she said, crestfallen.

Another of my German colleagues, waiting for me at our office, told me when I arrived a rare 10 minutes late for our meeting: “I was going to text you because − well, this is you.”

Funny how no one on the other side of the Atlantic would recognise this ‘me.’

Part of this is about changing in order to adapt. But the other part of this story is the fallacies we learn about other cultures: Germans, too, can be chronically late.

One close friend of mine, a German television reporter, is so habitually unpunctual that I bring a book when meeting her. One time, she arranged for a group-meet (another lovely German habit of getting all your friends who don’t know each other together because you don’t have time to see them all individually). She straggled in a half hour behind schedule (as usual) to find all of us craning our heads from different tables, trying to recognise who else might be waiting for her.

Don’t always show up on time

And of course, the cardinal rule: Do not, I repeat, do not show up on time for certain Berlin parties. Fashionably late is two hours or more, definitely after midnight to show you are cool, in demand, had other engagements first – besides, many hosts deliberately set the beginning time two hours earlier than they want people to arrive.

But a warning: Do not try this in Denmark (where I once lived). Because despite their easy-going, party-happy reputation, if you are two minutes early to a birthday party, everyone there wonders why you are − in their terms − late.