Plans and Punctuality

Analog clock

Photo © Michael Sommers.

I often only realize how “Brazilian” I’ve become when I see myself through foreign eyes. Two years ago, I spent my end of year holidays at Barra Grande, an idyllic beach getaway on Bahia’s Baía de Camamu, where I met and became friends with a German surfer/financial consultant named Dirk. At the time Dirk was in the throes of being seduced by Brazil, so much so, in fact, that he has since returned here every year to travel, surf, and perfect his Portuguese.

Dirk’s 2012 Brazilian Adventures began this week when he touched down in Salvador, prepared to plunge into two weeks of intensive Portuguese classes. Upon his arrival on Sunday, he sent me an e-mail inviting me to lunch on Wednesday at 12:30. When I responded in the affirmative and then said I’d call him on Wednesday to confirm, he seemed mystified that a confirmation was necessary. Meanwhile, when Wednesday rolled around and he called me at 12:25 to let me know he’d be five minutes late, it was my turn to be surprised.

The thing is about time in Brazil (and, once again, Bahia in particular) is how wonderfully flexible and elastic a concept it can be.

Both Dirk’s mystification and my surprise stem from the fact that in Brazil (and particularly in Bahia) it’s customary to extend invitations to lunches, outings, and events that don’t yet exist – and may not ever materialize. For this reason, it’s customary for the Invitee to call the Inviter on the appointed day to confirm that the original event is actually taking place let alone that it’s happening at the same location and the same time. It’s often quite likely that, in the interim, the Inviter will have concocted entirely different plans (in which the Invitee might or might not be included) or may not have any concrete plans at all (although new ones might eventually emerge hours later after various mutual friends have been called and conferred with).

Dirk’s perplexed reaction to the confirmation rule not only amused me, but also made me realize how second nature such Brazilian behavior is to me. The truth is that there are times when I enthusiastically and, without a trace of guilt, accept an invitation to Something, knowing full well that:

1. It will possibly never come to fruition
2. I might not actually go (either because I just don’t want to or because I’ll only decide on the spur of the moment if I actually feel like going).

An added bonus is that even if I do initially accept the invitation, it won’t be considered a faux pas if I change my mind and am ultimately a no-show.

Meanwhile the fact that Dirk’s punctuality – not to mention his calling to inform me of his five-minute delay before the actual fact – freaked me out made me realize how great I’ve become at shaking off the shackles of Time (or, viewed through an alternate perspective, how great I’ve become at making people wait on me).

The thing is about time in Brazil (and, once again, Bahia in particular) is how wonderfully flexible and elastic a concept it can be.

For example, formal sit-down meals are rarer than casual festas at which the contents of multiple pots and pans can be savored throughout an entire afternoon or evening. This means if the party officially starts at 1pm, showing up at 3pm is quite acceptable.

Similarly, get-togethers in bars or on the beach usually involve small congregations. As such, you can rest assured if you’re running late that someone else will get there first. However, even in a one-on-one situation, if you’re 20 minutes late (30 minutes is pushing it), nobody is ever bent out of joint at cooling their heels alone in the sand or at a lively bar table.

For me, a major advantage of this loose concept of time is the lack of stress involved. Harboring no expectations that whomever you’re meeting is going to arrive at the appointed hour, you’re not constantly watching the clock and getting increasingly peeved as the minutes tick by. Lateness isn’t interpreted as a lack of respect. Moreover, since you’re not banking on punctuality, time spent waiting is not considered a “waste” of time.

Meanwhile, knowing that you have some leeway in terms of your own arrival time means there’s no need to rush or get anxious. Even better is that you don’t have to wrack your brain trying to come up with credible excuses for your tardiness and heartfelt pleas for forgiveness. In Brazil, a little lateness goes a long way.


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