Why being late symbolizes the worst in humanity

The fashionable habit of our time is lateness – the act of being chronically dilatory. Unpunctuality is as ubiquitous of modern day socializing as the mimosa you’re eager to drink while you patiently wait for your friend to arrive to brunch.

The irony of writing about being late is that it is well past time when writers started expressing their dismay about the tardiness epidemic. When organizing his actors and rehearsal time, Shakespeare quipped, “Better three hours too soon, then a minute late.” In 1825, fueled by the frustration of being the lone punctual wolf, a steel worker by the name of Clive Allen penned an article titled, Don’t Be Late and Don’t Be a Schmuck, deemed as one of the earliest guides to help kick the practice of arriving behind schedule. In the 1980s, Psychology Today hired analysts to report on this topic, and today, Amazon.com has a dedicated section to this subject.

Roughly two decades ago, the alarm over punctuality becoming passé in the corporate arena was sounded. In 2002, USA Today uncovered a pattern of frequent tardiness among CEOs in America. When one of them got flak for proclaiming, “I’m never late, because the meeting starts when I arrive,” he embarked on an apology tour.

To stem off further press, a band of CEOs highlighted in the report commissioned a nationwide survey researching the depths of time lethargy in our society. The report found that 15 to 20 percent of the population was regularly late to work, tha in the early 2000’s roughly 45 percent said they were late for social events at least once a week, and discovered CEOs were late to 8 out of 10 meetings.

I’ve seen the issue of timeliness dissected and dealt with since my adolescence. We were implicitly told as children there were three types of engagements to never be late for: work, weddings, and white people.

During sophomore year of high school, I’ll never forget my Honors History teacher, Mr. Sullivan, tearing into a student for being 10 minutes late on the first day of school (no one was ever late after that).

When I attended the University of California Berkeley in the late 2000s, the school recently implemented Berkeley time – a provision that started classes 10 minutes late in hope students showed up to class on time.

At a graduate school event with Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, one Indian student asked what the best advice the economist could give to compete in a globalized world. Mr. Sen urged the young man to be on time. He argued that his countrymen must increasingly interact with businesses outside their borders and other cultures would be greatly offended by IST, as many in the subcontinent know as Indian Standard Time – a moniker to describe our people’s cavalier approach to adhering to schedules.

Last year, I attended an event evaluating a new Apple product being tested out to help tackle this problem. The technology would induce the feeling of a small pinch if its owner were running late to a meeting.

I was hopeful, will these efforts to subdue tardiness, we would eventually coalesce around the  importance of keeping commitments, understanding your word is your bond, and valuing everyone’s time equally.

Unfortunately, my levee of optimism has broken. As time goes on it’s crystal clear we are not only less punctual, but we have increasingly amplified, intellectualized, and dignified the habit of being late.

Diana Delonzer, author of Never Be Late Again notes there are five types of chronically late people. First, there is the rationalizer – the one that blames outside factors, like children, work, or spouse (for New Yorkers and San Franciscans this would be public transportation). Then, there is the absent-minded – the ones that simply forget. The most common type is the adrenaline-driven – the one eager to pack their schedule, lusting for deadline-induced stress. Finally, Delonzer notes, there is the rebel type – the individual who defies authority and finds pleasure in keeping people waiting (you know who you are).

But, a new type of chronic lateness has emerged, one that can be described as the agonizingly indifferent – the one who gives zero fucks about keeping their word, utterly careless of other people’s schedules; an individual with such tunnel vision they are of the belief that stress and uncertainty only plague their lives; someone who uses time as a rough estimate and thinks its charming to constantly text you while they run late (you know who you are).

In recent years, the inability to be on time has not been met with scorn but heaps of scientific justification. Recently, Harvard Medical School published a report that “late people live longer and are more successful.” In a Psychology Today piece, Dr. Neel Burton argues that an individual should be eight minutes late to signal one’s importance but reach their destination before the other person is annoyed. Another batch of psychologists came out in 2014 in support of being late in a working paper, noting that lateness indicates “ambition, creativity, and passion.”

Business Insider’s Sabrina Hoffman and John Stanley Hunter highlight that having a somewhat inexact sense of time can be linked to optimism, a Type-B personality, and a tendency to multitask both at home and at the office.

In a phone call with Dr. Linda Sapian, a time management specialist, the psychologist vehemently defended attempts to rationalize tardiness. (Dr. Sapian was late for our interview.)          

“You may not like it as a friend, but we get rewarded as society. People incapable of being on time are usually go-getters and are great employees.”

Upon pressing Dr. Sapian about the merits of good manners and preserving good friendships, the psychologist downplayed such qualms. “Please, look at your old home of Silicon Valley and all the great apps they are making to improve relationships. Look at the work amazing psychologists like me do, it’s because we are so busy.”

I may come off as an aging man, naively idealistic, blinded by a romanticism about the past, and unable to cope with the present (or perhaps over the consistent tardiness of every New Yorker). My concern isn’t that society is changing or the norms with how we interact are altering. What is frightening is the precarious rise of utilizing weak correlative data to minimize the importance of empathy and kindness. There are certain virtues that might be psychologically tied to being late, but it is still a horrendous habit that is being normalized. Stating otherwise is another instance of a selfish tendency being accepted as an indirect utilitarian cultural or economic boon, when it’s neither.

What all the literature praising laggards ignore is that the stresses and concerns in society don’t subside; they merely transfer over to the individual forced to accommodate unpunctual acolytes.

Happiness and fulfillment aren’t always zero-sum, but when you are behind schedule because you are doing something that gives you purpose, you make the other person feel they don’t matter. When you are late for a social event or a date because what you are doing instills optimism in your soul, you do so at the expense of the other person’s emotional well-being.

If you are delayed because your day was engulfed with a series of events that overwhelmed you, you are simply extending a portion of that hardship on to the party anxiously awaiting your arrival. Moreover, if you justify your tardiness due to your ambition, you are simply hurting another person’s ability to prosper due to the emotional and time investment they wasted on you.

And, if you are late because you want to signal you’re a person of value or importance, you’re not a person who brings value to anything important: you are just deeply insecure.

I am not saint. I don’t claim to be the Mr. Rogers of timeliness. I am guilty of the actions I carp on. I have arrived at events well past the scheduled time in high school, college, and well into my early 30’s. But, with every minute I kept my party waiting, the amount of guilt within me grew. I never thought that a term paper, work deadline, or lackluster day justified holding someone up. That uneasiness and sympathy regarding another individual’s time has eroded in our psyche and been replaced with what can be described, at best, as an attitude of negligence and, at worst, a slowly accepted cultural norm of apathy.

I fear we’re too late to change that.

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