No matter how much I meditate or do yoga inversions (forcing me to see things upside down), my buttons are pushed when people don’t show up or events don’t begin at the agreed upon or advertised time. I experience, to varying degrees, irritation, anger, disappointment and/or — if it’s someone I really care about — hurt. Alas, most of the world is not as reliable as Swiss trains and watches, which leaves me vulnerable to upset unless I can re-frame the issue of punctuality or, barring that, move to a Swiss monastery.
Maybe you can help with the re-framing (or, failing that, with the packing!).
First, some scenarios:
Two weeks ago, I scheduled a private lesson with my yoga teacher. We agreed to meet at 12pm, and I told her that I needed to leave by 1pm so that I could be on time for a seminar. I arrived before noon. She showed up 20 minutes later, flustered due to a sequence of mishaps. While I understood that her tardiness was not completely under her control, I noticed that part of me expected her to have built enough slack into her schedule to show up on time anyway. And, since she arrives early for group classes, this part was not easily consoled by her explanation. We had a conversation about it; turns out she doesn’t care so much if people (even therapists!) are on time, as long as the quality of the interaction is high. My point was that it’s harder to create a quality interaction if someone fails to appear when they say they would (or communicate if they are going to be late). To me, keeping one’s word is a cornerstone of building trust and showing respect.
I pondered my teacher’s perspective when, after rushing home to change clothes and drive to the seminar, I waited for about 15 minutes with nearly a dozen others for the instructor. The fellow, upon arriving, said he was sorry but did not offer an explanation; nor was his tone apologetic. While he shared many substantive points, I noticed that no one reacted when he shared something he insisted was funny. Perhaps if he had been prompt we might have felt more receptive and laughed. And while he stayed late to make up for his tardiness, that decision threw off at least one person’s schedule. I don’t think it occurred to him that the people paying for his expertise expected the session to also end at the stated time.
For the record, I’m not as consistently punctual as Swiss trains. I strive to show up when I say I will or when it’s expected (and call if I can’t), but if I don’t, and there isn’t some external cause of delay, it’s probably because, to use a yoga term, I’m not completely aligned inside.
I had a job where I couldn’t bring myself to arrive by 9a.m. or earlier, like some industrious colleagues. Usually I walked into the office at 9:10 or 9:15a.m., sometimes later. The job paid well but I wasn’t happy there; I kept my own schedule as much as possible until I worked up the nerve to resign. I’ve been late to therapy sessions (and some dates) due to latent misgivings. And once I arrived an hour late to a spring craft show because I had forgotten to set my clock ahead the previous night. It was also true that I wasn’t excited about being there, but I’d been invited to be a vendor and hadn’t felt comfortable declining. I’m guessing that if I had booked an overseas flight for that day, I would have remembered to adjust the clock.
And I’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s rigid insistence on punctuality. In the early 1990s I lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and briefly dated a fellow across town. I had agreed to meet him on the East Side at a certain time, boarded a bus, and discovered that a parade had rerouted traffic. It was likely I was going to be at least a half hour late, an excruciating delay given my punctual proclivities. Exiting the bus and hailing a cab wasn’t an option; the taxis weren’t moving any faster. I didn’t have a cellphone and I spent most of the trip worrying if he’d even be there when I arrived. He was waiting, but furious that I hadn’t anticipated every possible impediment to being on time. In his view, if he had been the love of my life, I would have scanned the newspaper’s traffic report or phoned the transit authority for updates before leaving my apartment. In my mind, if I had been the love of his life, he would have been relieved that it was a parade that delayed me, not something worse.
At a recent art opening, the person responsible for the exhibit (and who had requested RSVPs for the reception) showed up much later than expected, prompting some murmurs and head shaking. Another artist and I chatted about punctuality. She admitted she wasn’t always on time, even for client meetings.
“So, what happens that makes you late?” I probed.
“Sometimes I underestimate how long it will take me to get somewhere,” she said. “Or I’m focused on something and have a hard time breaking away.”
Understandable, but also correctable.
It takes countless complex operations, calibrations and sheer human diligence and vigilance for an airplane to take off and land on time, and often we grumble when they don’t. Yet, many people can’t seem to arrive somewhere when they’ve agreed. I wonder if it’s ambivalence or something else at work, such as a power play.
If you’re still reading, I’d love to hear about your attitudes toward punctuality. Are there people in your life for whom you’d never be late, or for whom you’re chronically late? If you’re someone who “runs late” does it bother you or people close to you? What is your tolerance of other people’s tardiness, and is it the same for social and professional situations?
Please share, just don’t keep me waiting.