Icelandic Culture: Punctuality and planning skills

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.

Icelandic time

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.

A rescue worker saving a sheep in the snow in North Iceland last year when a bad snow storm in September took everyone by surprise. Image via Landsbjörg - if you want to donate to a good cause in Iceland there's where your money should go!

A rescue worker saving a sheep in the snow in North Iceland last year when a bad snow storm in September took everyone by surprise. Image via Landsbjörg – if you want to donate to a good cause in Iceland there’s where your money should go!

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.

Planning skills

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.

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29 thoughts on “Icelandic Culture: Punctuality and planning skills”

  1. Katharine Kroeber-Wiley says:

    I have a friend who has worked to promote Bicycle Tourism, mostly in Britain and Iceland. He was in Iceland meeting with some people about this. Everyone got on well, ideas were batted about, and it was eagerly agreed on a Saturday that they should host a multi-national conference on Bicycle Tourism. One of the Icelanders said, “How’s Tuesday? Can everyone do Tuesday? I know that’s a bit far ahead…” Fortunately my friend had been doing business with Icelanders for several decades, so he was not surprised. But he had a bit of an uphill fight persuading them that people from other nations might need a bit more lead-time. As he said to me cheerfully after this meeting, “I hope the Icelanders haven’t forgotten in the two months I got them to agree to that they’re putting this on!” I think your reasoning about “Iceland time” is spot on.

  2. xinxian says:

    Hahahaha sounds like Malaysians and Icelanders will get along juuuust fine! That part about saying they’re on the way when they’re still putting on pants at home sounds really familiar 😛

  3. Emma says:

    This made me giggle. I love the thought of time being an abstract concept, but in reality, I think I would go mad!! I’m one of these REALLY annoying super punctual people. I love the freedom and laid-back attitude of the Icelandic culture though – it’s one of my main reasons for wanting to visit.

    1. mm Auður says:

      The boyfriend is one of your kind and wants to be everywhere at least 10 minutes before he has to. Leaves him frustrated a lot when people don’t see things the same way he does (and by people I also mean me) 🙂

      1. Jasmine says:

        I thought your man was Icelandic!

        1. mm Auður says:

          He is, he’s just a punctual Icelandic. Rare breed.

  4. Svanhildir says:

    I really enjoyed this article and shared on my timeline.
    I look forward to reading more and learning about my self!

  5. Marie says:

    This is very interesting! However, I believe in most of the West, arriving for a dinner party at a private home, one should always be 5 or 10 minutes late. It is called being ‘politely late’, so as to give the hostess just a few extra minutes to have everything ready. For a business meeting you need to be 10 minutes early and it looks really bad to arrive exactly on time. Another thing I have had a problem with is people just popping in unannounced which I was told is very common amongst farmers in Iceland. I always try to phone a little in advance if I just happen to be driving in the area where someone I know lives, to see if it is convenient for me to pop in or not. I think all of this just has to do with thinking about others, putting ourselves in other’s shoes and common courtesy….:)

  6. Fína says:

    haha.. married to an Icelander.. Me: “When are you coming home (Reykjavík)” He: “I´m nearly there!” – just driving up the hill at Hveragerði..

  7. Randy Becker says:

    This may explain why I always feel comfortable in Iceland. Here on my smaller island, Key West, Conch Republic, time has the same fluid quality. We will agree to meet “in the afternoon” and always choose a place where the one arriving first will not object to waiting (a leisurely front porch, a bar, an oceanside quay). In due time, all will be together and life will be fine. Until then, life is also fine.

  8. Lavergne Fequet says:

    So if i ask an Icelandic lady on a date and she accepts and I arrive 15 minutes late to pick her up, she will be okay with that? 🙂 🙂
    Here in Canada, being late for appointments, or more precisely. arriving when it suits them, is an habitual trait of our First Nation people. First Nation people and non-First Nation people refer to this as them being on “Indian time”.

  9. Elly says:

    Icelandic time makes perfect sense to me, and is what keeps the NHS ticking over 🙂 There is always some emergency or crisis to sort out before attending the next appointment – I prefer to prioritise by urgency not predefined times, so it’s nice to know I’m not on my own 🙂

    1. Londoner says:

      Elly, it made me smile that you somehow expected that internet readers know what NHS means. 🙂

  10. Heather says:

    I have not seen this in Iceland. I have been picked up on time, each time. But I guess my experience is based on business practice. But I did have someone come to collect me at the Airport. I was not expecting him, and when he turned up I was so very surprised. He did not need to do that either, it was not his responsibility. So I don’t know I will just take your word for ‘Icelandic punctuality, or lack there-of. I do know I am totally addicted to Iceland, and if there is a cure, I don’t want it

  11. RDZink says:

    This explains a lot! Now I understand some past occurrences in Iceland. Bearing in mind that I am an American of pure German stock who has memories of being taught that the worst sin known to man is being late. I remember my father reasoning with an old pocket watch ( with a hammer) because it lost a minute a week.

  12. Yvonne Ong says:

    This is interesting, particularly so when the experience I had in Iceland was entirely different! My friends and I went on a tour and we were dropped off at a gallery, being told that we’ll be there for “maybe 30 min, maybe earlier or later, but we will let you know when we’re about to go”. We visited the gallery (3 floors) and when we went back to the ground floor the tour guide was MAD at us for being “late” (we weren’t and he didn’t even inform us of the time to leave). He actually raised his voice and said something like “In this country when we say its time to go, it’s TIME to go!!” Whoa. So we all thought Icelanders are very punctual…guess it was just that tour guide! Who shouldn’t be scolding people anyway…

    Apart from that, I loveeee Iceland and really wish to go back again. Love reading your posts, keep up the good writing! Cheers x

  13. Amanda says:

    Hello Audur!! I hope you get this post…

    I’m planning on a trip to Iceland June 2015. I plan on going for 2 weeks, and traveling Route 1. I have several questions to ask you before I go…

    1.) I noticed you had a blog about renting vehicles. I plan on renting a jeep wrangler. Is it possible to go off-roading? Or do you have to keep your vehicle on the roads at all times?

    2.) In June, what type of clothing should I bring with me? From what I understand, all areas have different temperatures.

    3.) Are there a lot of police officers traveling Route 1?

    4.) Are there many restrictions on bonfires? Am I able to set up bonfires on beaches or certain areas in the hills/mountains?

    5.) If you’ve traveled Route 1, approximately how long did it take?

    6.) Are there any “weird” laws in Iceland that I should be aware of?

    7.) Are there any good vintage/antique shops in Reykjavik?

    8.) There’s NO WAY I can ever learn Icelandic haha. Do a lot of Icelanders speak English?

    9.) Do Icelandic people find Americans to be annoying in any way? I want to try to avoid being annoying. How do they view Americans?

    10.) In June, while traveling Route 1, will I encounter any dangerously snowy roads/conditions?

    I know it’s a lot of questions… and I’m sure I have more but I’d like your opinion on them! Thank you!

    Amanda

    1. mm Auður says:

      Hi Amanda,

      I’m a bit baffled with your comment and don’t know how to answer it without sounding rude because that’s not at all what I mean to be. Don’t you find 10 questions a bit excessive? You do realize I’m not a travel agent, right? I know I’m really helpful and all but everything has its limit – if everyone who contacts me would ask me the same amount of questions I wouldn’t do anything else (including eating or sleeping).

      1) You shouldn’t go off the roads at all because by doing so you jeopardize the fragile Icelandic nature and it’s strictly forbidden. Don’t do it! I also think it would do you some good to read this: https://www.iheartreykjavik.net/2013/09/the-seven-secrets-of-being-an-awesome-traveler-in-iceland/
      2) I recommend you try http://www.vedur.is for information about the Icelandic weather.
      3) What have you got planned? If you follow the traffic rules, which you should do, it doesn’t really matter how many police officers are out on the roads. I recommend you read this: https://www.iheartreykjavik.net/2012/11/reykjavik-basics-how-to-avoid-speeding-tickets-in-iceland/
      4) You should not build a bonfire in an environment you don’t know.
      5) You can drive the ring road in 24 hours and you can drive it in a month without being bored.
      6) Not that I remember.
      7) Yes
      8) Yes, English is widely spoken
      9) They view Americans as people and judge them by their character and manners more than their nationality.
      10) I don’t know – it depends on the weather at that moment. Check out http://www.road.is before you head out.

      If you have any more questions I think it might be a good idea for you to find a travel agent to help you plan your trip. Or, you can try googling it.

      1. Amanda says:

        Thank you so much! I honestly was not at all trying to be offensive or rude with any of those questions. I sincerely hope you didn’t take offense to my comment. I would just like to get a locals point-of-view with all my questions before I go to Iceland. I would never do anything to harm the environment. I just need to familiarize myself with the Icelandic laws. Thanks again for your time!

      2. Marie Valgarðsson says:

        As an American living in Iceland maybe I can comment on question #9 –

        When I first arrived in Iceland I was just bursting at the seams with enthusiasm,- I think it happens to a lot of people – there is definitely some sort of very noticeable energy emanating from Icelandic nature that you do not feel in other places. At least that is how it was for me. This energy carried me for about a year and I do think I became a bit much for my Icelandic in-laws after awhile. It finally occurred to me that my high-energy enthusiasm was not always appreciated, and I began to be more sensitive to the energy levels of those around me and made a conscious effort to match my energy level to that of others. Which meant I usually had to tone myself down a few notches. Having lived all over Europe with the exception of Germany, Portugal and GB, I have found that generally speaking the further north you go in Europe, the people tend to be more subdued and reserved, but this is true even in the States- northerners vs. southerners, cold vs. warm climate, etc. Icelanders are very tolerant and even sometimes I think, a bit amused by all the foreigners who are flocking to their country, and I have not heard anybody complaining about ‘loud Americans’. Which is nice, even if I have, at times, been guilty.

        1. Amanda says:

          Thank you, Marie! I’ll keep your comment in mind 🙂

  14. Pauline O'brien says:

    marie, have you managed to learn Icelandic. I was engaged to an Icelander and couldn’t even pronounce his surname . Sadly we broke up but I hope to return there as a tourist in the future.

  15. Marie Valgarðsson says:

    Hi Pauline,
    Learning Icelandic is a work in progress for sure! I have been here for nearly 7 years and am still learning! If one wants to live here you really have to be keen on learning the language especially if you want to get any kind of a job. If English is your mother tongue, count on, I would say, anywhere from 4 to 5 years, up to 8 to 10 years minimum to gain fluency, (depending on your age). My kids were young teens when we arrived and they were fluent much faster than I, but then they were in school all day long and had teachers helping them, which of course I did not get. I got really discouraged after 5 years, still felt unable to carry on a simple conversation in the shops…. I almost gave up. Finally just this last February I decided to totally devote myself to learning from every available source- tons of books, cds, Icelandic online from the university and got myself a tutor for one month. Now I can do all my shopping and everyday conversations in Icelandic, and I am feeling much better! It can be done, but you have to be ready to do battle with this language for sure!

  16. Hans says:

    @ Marie and Pauline: I think learning a language should be measured in number of hours rather than years. For example: I learned German for four years in school, and at the end of the four years still wasn’t able to carry a small conversation without making obvious mistakes and had a very poor vocabulary. I learned Spanish for 5 years and it was even worse. Why? Because I learnt both languages in school, so with about 2 hours a week of each.

    On the other hand, I have been learning Icelandic for 2 months, and although it is a difficult language,
    a/ I can say more in Icelandic now after two months than I could ever say in German or Spanish after YEARS of learning. So it’s all about dedication, hard and regular work. There’s no secret. But it’s definitely *not* impossible!
    b / It’s really not the worst language around for an English speaker (many cognates or semi-cognates, “only” four cases – compare with Finnish: no cognates at all because it is not an Indo-European language… and FIFTEEN cases). Reaching fluency in Icelandic is measured at around 1000 hours of work for English speakers (compared to half for French and double that for Chinese or Japanese for example). So not simple, but definitely not impossible, and if you work diligently, it shouldn’t take 5 years. Icelandic is only rated as “medium difficulty”.
    c/ No one is a bigger proponent of “Icelandic is impossible to learn” than Icelanders themselves. But it’s not just them: Ask anyone anywhere, everyone from every nation loves to say their own native language is “impossible to master” by foreigners. So don’t listen to them. Will you ever be able to speak “just like a native”? Probably not. But speak satisfyingly well? Of course. There’s no reason why not.

    *end of heart-felt pep talk*

  17. Marcia says:

    I think Uruguayans and Icelanders would get along just great! I’m from Uruguay, and punctuality is not our strong suit either. I’ve been wanting to visit Iceland for some time now, as I love love love love LOVE the language, and I haven’t got much time to learn it, but I’ve bought a book and I’m trying to get help online. I’ll do my best to learn all that I can, and hopefully someday get to know that BEAUTIFUL place that is just waiting for me. I think it’s where I belong.
    Cheers.

  18. Rita says:

    If you weren’t writing about icelanders this text could be about us portuguese., that’s how we are.

    1. mm Auður says:

      We are sometimes called the south Europeans of the North 🙂

  19. Aimee says:

    This is totally me…I suppose my soul is Icelandic.

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