In one of my classes at school this week we were discussing different cultures in the context of business and what character traits define us as Icelanders. When asked about things he had noticed about Icelanders as a whole, one foreign student in my class mentioned Icelandic punctuality or lack thereof. He then went on to say: “Then they call you and say they are on the way when in fact they probably haven’t left the house yet and are still putting on pants“. Without wanting to generalize, this couldn’t be more accurate.
I sometimes argue that Icelanders have a circular sense of time like you will find in some less developed societies rather than following the more traditional western linear time. I think it may have to do with the fact that up until quite recently we were an isolated nation of farmers, living in a country that is maybe not the best suited for farming, where our survival was dependent on reacting the right way to different seasons. If you look at farming even today you will see that despite all the technological advancement farmers still have to drop everything to save their hay if a rainy storm is brewing. Or to save a snowed in sheep. Also, with no trains and the most common mean of transport to cross the country being your own two feet or a horse, combined with our notoriously crazy weather, there really was no saying whether you’d show up on a Wednesday or a Friday if you planned to be somewhere on a Thursday.
So time is almost an abstract concept in Icelandic society and punctuality is not our strong suit to say the least. Tardiness in meetings is a normal occurrence and when you throw a dinner party you make sure to put on the invitation that it starts half an hour before it actually starts so the food won’t get cold before your guests arrive. If you are expecting foreign guests you should send a special invitation to them as there’s a good chance, because you’re Icelandic after all, that you won’t be ready when they show up right on time. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just how things are. It’s almost expected.
I’ve talked about “Þetta Reddast” before, two little words that sum up a entire philosophy that the whole nations sometimes seems to subscribe to. Since we are terrible at planning (or following a plan, not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg, in this scenario) we have become really good at fixing things. We never work better than when the pressure is so overwhelming that if we don’t pull things off at this exact moment in time the whole world will collapse. Then we become miracle workers making the impossible possible.
This part of our Icelandic being can be cumbersome for people that are a bit better at the planning part than we are. Trying to decide something with an Icelander more than a month in advance is next to impossible and you will often get answers like: be in touch a little bit closer to the date or just swing by the office once you are here. Another reason I believe in the circular time theory, we can’t seem to see past the current cycle.
A round peg in a square world
I’m sure that someone is thinking right now that Icelanders need to pick up the slack and become more punctual because this is impossible to work with. I would argue that if you want to do business with an Icelander on his or her turf you need to adapt to this (which you now can, because I’ve told you how the cookie crumbles) just as he or she should be on time in a culture where that is important. What can be seen as weaknesses can also be thought of as strengths and I can almost promise you that you won’t find more flexible people who would, if approached correctly, drop everything to save your hay if needed. Because that’s just how we roll.