If You’re Late, You’re Early: On Argentine Time

It's 6:32 p.m. The professor is nowhere in sight. Didn’t the syllabus say the class started at 6 p.m.? I figured that since it was the first class, the professor was just a little behind…

It’s merienda time in Buenos Aires and I had planned on meeting a friend for his local snack/siesta break at 4:30 p.m. I shot him a text letting him know I was running about five minutes late, only for him to arrive 30 minutes later than I did…

While these are just two occasions, this has been a regular occurrence throughout my study abroad experience. My host mom will tell us that we’re eating dinner at 9 p.m. and we won’t end up sitting down at the table until 10:15 at night. I think that after four months of being immersed in Argentine culture, I can confidently say that punctuality is not highly prioritized amongst porteños (Spanish for locals who live here).

In Argentine social culture, it is very normal for professors and students to show up around 45 minutes late to class; for your lunch date to show up 30 minutes later than the time you had set; for people to walk in and out casually in professional meetings; for deadlines to be loosely enforced, if at all. The only thing that ever seems to be on time, or even early, surprisingly, are airline flights!

This was one of the more frustrating aspects of life when I moved to Buenos Aires, as I’ve always been a punctual person. My father ingrained me with his motto, “If you are early, you are on time; if you are on time, you are late.” And that has always stuck with me. Experiencing a culture that speaks a different language of time was one of the biggest culture shocks I had to adjust to. It wasn’t just a matter of showing up later than I normally would; it required a change in perspective. 

At first I thought the lack of punctuality was out of rudeness or disregard, but it actually highlights the importance of social interaction in Argentine culture. Time is not considered something that should be quantified obsessively or monetized, like we do in the U.S. Porteños seem to walk at glacial pace on the sidewalk, but that highlights the value of enjoying the moment and living without the pressure placed on time.

Dinners normally start at 9 p.m. and last several hours. I think the value of spending time with family and friends and loved ones is highlighted in the cultural norm—lingering lunches, meriendas, dating culture and long dinners are ways of strengthening these social relationships and creating stronger ties to others. It is no wonder that the nightlife goes into the wee hours of the morning—pregames start at 2 a.m. and the earliest you call it a night is around 5 a.m. Argentines value time differently than other cultures do, but in a way that puts their relationships first.

I can’t help but reflect on how time is treated in the U.S. Time is monetized: It’s apparent in the word choices we make to describe it. We spend time, we can waste time, and we can lose time or even gain it. There is a greater focus on the individual. Time is personal and not to be mistreated or wasted by someone else. The ideals of capitalism are highly valued, and for this, often every minute of every day must be productively used or it is considered wasted.

Microwave dinners can be made in a matter of minutes and are consumed in a similar time span, and lunch hours are incredibly short and often take place on the go in anticipation of the next meeting or class. Capitalism and the individual are often valued higher than social relationships. If someone in the U.S. were to be late or to spend too much time at dinner, people would get frustrated and impatient, and social ties and relations could be cut short.

Porteño culture reminds me of the importance of being flexible and spending time on the things that are important—friendships and social relationships. While sometimes it’s frustrating when a friend arrives 30 minutes late, I know that the next three hours we spend together will be well worth the wait.

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