Teaching Matters: The Perception of Time and Value of Punctuality in American Culture

Teaching Matters: The Perception of Time and Value of Punctuality in American Culture

man winding watch

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

– William Blake (1757-1827), English poet, painter and printmaker

The concept of time defies easy definitions, meaning many different things to many different people. Americans often perceive time as a critical commodity, an item that can actually be bought or sold. They also normally associate phrases used with money to time. For instance, some Americans will talk about “saving time”, “spending time,” and “wasting time.” In other words, most Americans hate to wait!

Many Americans, for better or worse, also use punctuality to judge a person’s character. For instance, if you arrive on-time to an appointment, you may be seen as a trustworthy, dependable person. If you arrive late to an appointment without calling or texting ahead, it could indicate that you don’t respect the other person’s time. Many Americans keep a busy schedule and take lateness as a sign of disrespect.  Being on time in American culture becomes especially important in business and college, where punctuality remains an expectation for professionals and students.

If you go to a public event in the United States (e.g. a movie, show, sporting event), you should arrive at least a few minutes before the scheduled time. The show will go on whether you are there or not! Luckily, smaller social gatherings – like a party at someone’s home – are usually exempt from this rule. You are not expected to arrive exactly on time, but you should still try to stay within a 15 to 30 minute range of the expected arrival time. This behavior is also known as being “fashionably late.”

In short, making connections in American culture requires constant timekeeping. So, what sort of tips can ESL teachers provide English language learners and international students to increase mindfulness and improve their punctuality?


  1. Strive to arrive on time, or even 10-15 minutes early.
  2. If you know that you will be arriving late, call or text ahead of time to let others know of the delay and offer an explanation.
  3. As soon as you know that you won’t be able to make your appointment, immediately cancel/rearrange with the other person.


Additionally, ask your ESL students about their perceptions of time. How important is punctuality in their home country and culture? What is their preferred method of keeping time? How much time do they schedule for their morning routine? We recommend separating the class into small groups for this activity. Here are a few sample questions to open the discussion:

  1. What do you do if you show up early for something?
  2. What do you do if you show up late for something?
  3. What do you do if you forget an appointment?
  4. When is it acceptable to be late?
  5. When is it not acceptable to be late?
  6. Does waiting for someone bother you?
  7. If you had the power to stop and restart time, when would you use it? (“Time may change me/But I can’t trace time” – David Bowie [1947-2016], English singer/songwriter)

Lastly, what about you? Do you value punctuality as a quality in others? Is it a quality you take pride in yourself as an English teacher? How would you advise others to stay on task and meet appointments? Feel free to share your suggestions!

This blog post features content from the second edition of Compelling Conversations – Vietnam, now available on Amazon. Check out our featured sample chapter, Delicious Choices, here. For more sample chapters from this and our other titles, click here.

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About the Author

Eric H. Roth teaches international graduate students the pleasures and perils of academic writing and public speaking in English at the University of Southern California (USC). He also consults English language schools on communicative methods to effectively teach English. Roth co-authored Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics in 2006 to help English language learners increase their English fluency. Recommended by English Teaching Professional magazine, the advanced ESL textbook has been used in over 50 countries in English classrooms and conversation clubs. Easy English Times, an adult literacy newspaper, has published a monthly column, “Instant Conversation Activities,” based on the book since 2008. The first specific version for a particular country, Vietnam, was published in 2011. Compelling American Conversations came out in 2012, and Compelling Conversations – Japan arrived in 2015. Eric enjoys sharing reflections, resources, and teaching tips on this #ESL #EFL #ELT blog.

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