Why do we run late? Does it matter that much? Should we wait or leave? And how might someone reform?
Being on time. Being late. A choice one way or the other, right? Well, it’s not always that simple. ‘Lateness’ or avoidance of it can vary from person to person (a relative of mine is always half an hour late), and lateness can also vary within the same person, according to context. Perhaps, like me, you’re never late for work things but sometimes run late for catch-ups with friends, appointments, or school pick-ups. This sometimes sees me sprinting, sweating and swearing. It’s like I have two different settings (but I’m reforming, honest).
Some things people should never be late for. An acquaintance tells me that “a family friend was late to my wedding and he walked in close behind me, ruining my wedding video”. She didn’t say anything, to avoid embarrassing him. Meanwhile, a close friend tells me “I hate being late but I’m often late”. It frustrates her.
Emily Holdaway, a social-media community creator from Northland, says: “I grew up with ‘better three hours early than a minute too late’ so I’m punctual AF. If someone’s running late and I get a text/DM, kei te pai. If they’re late and there’s no message, I start having anxiety that they’re not coming, and how this [might] domino the rest of my day because I’m not as ‘go with the flow’ as I tell myself I am on personality quizzes.”
“If a friend is consistently late, I feel shit. I hate feeling like a supporting character in the movie of someone else’s day.”
Kate*, an Auckland lawyer, says it’s about feeling valued. “If a friend is consistently late to meet me but on time to other things, I feel shit. I hate feeling like a supporting character in the movie of someone else’s day. It’s like ‘I agreed to meet you, not sit in public being bored for 30 minutes first’. I’ve ditched people after 10, 20 minutes of waiting, but not often. In saying that, sometimes I’m a bit late. Because traffic, buses, kids, life. But I always text, apologising. I’d hate people to think that I think I’m more important than them, or that I think my time is more valuable than theirs.”
How Many Minutes Is Too Late?
Ideally zero, but Psychology Today article ‘The Psychology of Lateness’, by psychiatrist and author Neel Burton, has this subtitle: ‘Why you should be eight minutes late, but not one more’. It seems nine or 10 minutes is generally the initial-annoyance level.
“To be five minutes late is not really to be late,” he writes. “Late is when people start getting annoyed. They get annoyed because your lateness betrays a lack of respect and consideration for them – and so they get more annoyed, and more quickly, if they are (or think they are) your social or hierarchical superiors.”
“Unless you present a very good excuse for being late, preferably something that’s out of your control, e.g. an elephant on the motorway [NOTE TO SELF FOR FUTURE USE], being late sends out the message, ‘My time is more valuable than yours’; that is, ‘I am more important than you’, and perhaps even, ‘I am doing you a favour by turning up at all’.”
Is Texting An Apology Enough?
Pre-cellphones, it was expected you’d be on time or at least not super-late. Does texting mitigate lateness at all? Well, while communicating that you’ll be late is important, it doesn’t magically make you ‘un-late’, especially if the other person is already there or en route. If you’re the ‘waiter’, do you text asking for an ETA? How might you word it? Should a ‘you’re 20 minutes late, WTF’ text be standard procedure?
Jo*, a Christchurch accountant, sometimes leaves after 15 minutes, “but probably only if it’s a repeat offender, and I’d text ‘sorry, I’m gone’. If I waited longer I’d be grumpy so it [the meet-up] would be coloured anyway.”
“Also, I won’t wait for late people before starting something – like when a family member was an hour late for Christmas dinner. He was like ‘why didn’t you wait?’ I was like, ‘Why should I? The food was getting cold’. It can be a super-sensitive subject – late people can get upset at others being judgemental about that [lateness].” When actually, if anyone is upset, it should be the person left waiting, right?
Annette*, an Auckland HR manager, calls herself the ‘timekeeper’. “My parents couldn’t get us kids to school/sports/artsy stuff on time; it was humiliating. It traumatised me into being almost always early. I get upset if I have to wait when I’ve put a huge effort into being on time. But I just have to accept it can be a minor thing for others. Also, my partner has no time perception. I get stressed that he’s upset that I’m stressed over what’s a ‘minor’ thing for him! Yet if anyone is late to meet him, how he rages!”
What Happens If You Have a Good Reason To Run Late?
We’re seldom late on purpose (although, like messiness, it’s occasionally used as a passive-aggressive tactic). Wellbeing researcher Adoree Durayappah-Harrison has written an article called ‘The Real Reason Some of Us Are Chronically Late’ for Psychology Today. She explains various reasons people have for lateness: because their own time is valuable; because they’re uncomfortable about waiting themselves; sometimes because they feel being on time is impolite (perhaps for a dinner party). And, let’s be honest, bus schedules.
If someone communicates ahead of time why they’re generally late, that can help. Stacey Kokaua from Ōtepoti says she’s “consistently late for everything. It’s part of having any relationship whatsoever with me. People might tell you, ‘Stacey is great but always late’. My Pākehā husband says this is because I wasn’t raised to understand how time works. Cook Islanders generally don’t place much importance on minute/second concepts of time. I’ve always found it weird that we’d divide days into tiny increments. I never care if people are late, I’ll happily sit for 30 minutes on my phone.”
Meanwhile, some people with neurodiversity disorders experience ‘time blindness”: the inability to accurately measure time. This may include lacking a good ‘internal clock’, and losing track of time because of distractions.
‘the more comfortable I am with someone, the more I’ll be late, because if you accept me as a friend, you accept I’m doing my best’
Moana*, a mother from Nelson with ADHD, experiences time blindness. “Thirty minutes can feel like an hour or like only 10 minutes. It upsets me sometimes because even if I try really hard, it can be difficult to get the timing correct. I can just get there on time for one-off, really important things but, basically, the more comfortable I am with someone, the more I’ll be late, because if you accept me as a friend, you accept I’m doing my best, not being disrespectful. I always text so people know I’ll be late, then to say I’ve just left/am on my way etc.”
How might those of us without such a good reason reform? Psychology Today has another article called ‘This Is Why Some People Are Always Late… and 3 Ways To Change Your (Or Their) Routines to Fix It’. Brain-science professor Susan Krauss says “decide ahead of time how long each phase of a task will take”. Build in, say, 15 minutes extra for if, for instance, your scrambled eggs stick to the pan. “Also, don’t fall prey to the temptation to do ‘one more thing’ before you know you have to leave.” And what might an early or on-time person do? “Reframing that early time as something valuable makes you feel like your time is being used constructively, whether for your own or for someone else’s benefit.” Maybe bring a laptop, do some brainstorming, or just enjoy a coffee in the sun.
As I write this, my alarm for a coffee catch-up is going off – and I’m leaving right now.