5h30 in the morning, the 4th of January 2023, I was driving my parents to the train station in Mo i Rana. The train scheduled departure was 5h55. When we reached the station, a new departure was announced at 6h08. Not the best news to receive, when you are hoping you could potentially go back to bed for a couple of minutes before starting the snoozing ritual with your alarm.

Eventually, the train arrived a bit before 6h05, we followed the line of sleeping faces. I took two of the very heavy suitcases and helped my father to arrange them in the suitcase compartment on the train. I now realize that this may sounds very stupid of me, but back in my head on the 4t of January, that was nothing more than a normal gesture to do: give a hand to my parents that are not so young anymore and not so awake and quite lost in the north. As opposed to the proficiency in the English language in Norway, people above the age of 50 in Switzerland do not speak English at all, unless they have actively chosen to learn it. Which being honest, it’s not the majority and definitely not the case with my parents.

So back to my helpful gesture, I was saying goodbye for the third time now to my parents, when I started to realize that we were moving. Mo i Rana Station started to vanish as the train was heading north. I will not go into the details of the dramatic reaction of my parents (hand over the head, hand covering the mouth, screaming, “stop the train”), but the point is that the train started to move at 6h05 instead of 6h08. I am quite impressed on how much trust I have put into these 3 minutes of differences between new departure schedule and the actual time we were leaving the station. In my Swiss mind, early morning on the 4th January 2023, it was impossible to consider that a train could leave before the announced departure time. A train can be late, but not leave before what is promised?

Another significant detail in this story was that I was in my pyjama. (Remember, I was planning to go back to bed as soon as my parents were safely on the train). Long story short story, the very surprised and kind train operator advised me to stay on the train until Fauske, so I could jump on the first train that was going to Mosjøen. Which I did. I was back in Mo i Rana 5h00 later.

I must admit that besides making my colleagues laugh a lot, this story kept intriguing me. So, I first started to google “can train leave station before time”? And you have no idea how many people have written about it. I even discovered a forum of people arguing about 30 seconds before the clock. I think the best answer so far was the one saying “the short answer is yes and no”. After feeling a bit better reading all these stories of people who have been in the same unfortunate situation as myself, (none with pyjamas though), I realized I was only finding answers from the UK and the US. So, I asked the same to google but in French. And then nothing. I didn’t even get a google answer as you usually do when asking questions. On the Swiss national rail network (CFF) webpage there is a very important section dedicated to delay. But not a single word about what happens if the train is in departs too early. Seems like we haven’t even been able to ask ourselves that question. In France, I found a 2014 article with the dramatic title “Pau (name of the city): careful, trains can leave in…advance”.

Beyond the personal anecdotes and interesting research, this makes me think of Erin Mayer. She wrote this book that I have used a lot in my professional life: “the culture map: breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business”. She is an American author and Professor and works on the communication patterns and business systems of different parts of the world. She developed what she calls the “Culture Map” framework, that allows international executives to pinpoint their leadership preferences and compare their methods to the management styles of other cultures. She has developed 8 scales that she considers crucial when it comes to relating with other cultures: 1. Communicating (explicit vs implicit), 2. Evaluating (direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback), 3. Persuading (deductive vs inductive), 4. Leading (egalitarian vs hierarchical), 5. Deciding (consensual vs top-down), 6. Trusting (task vs relationship), 7. Disagreeing (confrontational vs avoid confrontation) and finally 8. Scheduling (structured vs flexible).

The point that Erin is making with these 8 scales is that when examining how people from different culture relates to one another, what matter is not the absolute position of your so-called culture but rather the relative position of the two cultures on the scale. So, in short, it is relative positioning that determines how people view one another. And that gives a much broader perspective on cross cultural reading even if it doesn’t really consider variation among individuals, subcultures or regions for instance. But it is still useful to use Erin’s culture map as a general framework.

Back to my train anecdote, I then re-read the chapter on the scale number 8: scheduling. When giving examples of how the scheduling scale is profoundly affected by a number of historic factors, that can in some way shape the ways people live, work, think or interact with each other, she takes the extreme example of Germany:

“If you live in Germany, you probably find that things pretty much go according to plan. Trains are reliable; traffic is manageable, systems are dependable, government rules are clear and enforced more or less consistently. You can probably schedule your entire year on the assumption that your environment is not likely to interfere greatly with your plans. There’s a clear link between this cultural pattern and Germany’s place in history as one of the first countries in the world to become heavily industrialized. Imagine being a factory worker […] if you arrive at work four minutes late, the machine for which you are responsible gets started late, which exacts a real, measurable financial cost. If you are a farmer in the Nigerian countryside, most the farmwork is done by people, and you likely have few machines. In this environment, it doesn’t matter much if you start work at 7h00 or 7h12. What matters is that your work structure is flexible enough to adapt with changes in the natural environment.”

The fact that I found myself completely reliant on the time schedule by a de facto kind of cultural norm, made me realize how naïve I was. And I must admit, I kind of like the fact that even after 4 years living in the North, I can still be completely surprised and get out of my comfort zone.

Nevertheless, sitting 5 hours on a train, in my pyjamas and without brushing my teeth will probably remain on my top 5 list. So, a quick tip to the newcomers, finish your goodbye hugs on the train platform, and get on the train as soon as you see it.

Wishing you all a lovely weekend, free of non-voluntary train-rides

Av Yasna Mimbela, prosjektleder i Rana Utvikling