There’s being late and then there’s being late.
Some people are chronically tardy. They are late for meetings; they are late for appointments; they are late for dinner.
Others do not hand in reports on time. They do not finish the presentation in time. They even get to work late.
Those of us who are chronically punctual do not quite understand it. It’s not that difficult to get to dinner on time. But, it seems that something always comes up, something that is so momentous and so prepossessing that one is forced to be late.
Being late shows how important you are.
Of course, being late with your work assignments or for your appointments brings consequences.
Being late has a price. You will be alienate your friends and disrespect your coworkers.
Sumathi Reddy explains in the Wall Street Journal:
This kind of behavior can slow down workplace efficiency and drive longtime friends to distraction while they wait for a late arrival.
The more you are late the more you will compromise your ability to do your job. And you will be undermining everyone else’s job. You will be lobbying against your next promotion or raise. If there is justice in the world, you will find yourself with fewer and fewer longtime friends.
And yet, whatever the cost of tardiness, if you still have a job and still have longtime friends, perhaps it is not high enough.
Social psychologists have set out to study the problem, even to find new ways to solve it. For now, the results are not very encouraging.
Some people, Reddy reports, are chronically late because they cannot assess how much time it will take to complete a task.
If you often hand in your work late, you will perhaps have underestimated the time it will take to complete the job. You might also have not considered the possibility that your work time will be interrupted by other pressing concerns
It’s called a dance with a deadline. If you promise your work on Tuesday morning because you are persuaded that you will be done by Tuesday morning, you ought to keep your word.
But some people do not think it is very important to keep their word. And they have such busy lives that they simply do not have the time to do everything.
What is now called work/life balance is not on very good terms with punctuality.
The same applies to showing up on time for an appointment, a date or a meeting. If you do not know how to estimate how long it will take to complete a task you will not know when you will be able to show up. But also, if you do not understand the importance of being on time you will more easily allow yourself to be distracted.
Psychologists have devised a number of exercises that assist people in being on time. And yet, how many people are willing to perform the exercises?
Some people do not really care about being on time. They do not care about handing in reports on time. And they do not care about how they look to the people they are disappointing. Perhaps therapy taught them not to care about how they look to others.
Why might people be chronically late?
First, they do not estimate how much time it will take them to complete a task. They know how much time their manager will expect them to need to complete the task.
When estimating the time it takes, ask yourself whether you are evaluating your own abilities or are trying to do what someone else expects? An objective appraisal, performed by stepping out of yourself, will be valuable here.
Second, it is altogether possible that you have, over the years, gotten away with being late. Perhaps your work is so good that your managers swallow their irritation when faced by such a dazzling work product.
They think it’s worth the price. This will work until it doesn't. Those who are excusing your tardiness are not doing you any favors.
Third, as a corollary to the second, being late might be an assertion of self-importance. People believe that not showing up means that are very busy. They also believe that when they show up late they are showing their friends and colleagues how much their time is in demand, how vital their presence is in other places.
Fourth, many people do not believe, as an article of secular faith, that punctuality matters. They prefer the drama produced by tardiness to the harmony produced by punctuality.
Here, it’s a question of cultural values.
We pay lip service to the value of punctuality, but we also—at least, many of us do—believe that work is a soul-deadening process that we are forced to perform. Any opportunity to indulge even a minor distraction counts as a mini-rebellion against the corporate machine and against social mores.
In a culture where one’s sacred individuality is seen as at war with cultural restraints, being late might count as a healthy gesture.
If everyone shows up on time for the meeting, then the meeting can focus on the agenda. If one person’s lateness delays the meeting, then the meeting is first about what is wrong with that person or what happened to that person.
Being late makes you the object of everyone’s imagination. Maybe it's better to have everyone worry about you.
Our individualized culture often condemns conformity as a vice. Why should people conform to something as mechanical as a clock?
People believe that the truth lies in psychodrama and that the higher truth lies in their ability to rejected society’s strictures in favor of soulful self-expression. They make it a point of pride not to conform to the schedules of other people. They believe it demeaning to obey the numbers on a clock face. One suspects that they suffer from a reactionary yearning for a time before there were clocks.