July 26, 2009

People take punctuality very seriously. But is it worse to be kept waiting or to be the one who is running late? Both are stressful.

Traditionally, the person who is forced to wait is considered to be the one in the inferior position because they're stuck. When someone is running late they're in a panic but at least they know they have the upper hand. People who are left waiting have no choice other than to leave or to sit patiently at the table and ponder the question: what's more important then me?

Usually the answer is traffic. This is the universal excuse that justifies lateness and reaffirms it's not personal and beyond their control. It leaves the person whose been kept waiting with an obligation to say, "I understand." And if you don't understand, suddenly you're the one who is being rude. How did that happen?

Also when it's raining, traffic gets bumped up to 'nightmare' status and being 15 minutes late is considered punctual.

Another acceptable excuse is: work. Inserting "the boss" gives it even more legitimacy because no one can argue with "The boss wanted to speak with me just as I was leaving." Putting your job on the line helps. Can't argue with that. The third excuse no one can fault you for is: the baby. Anything to do with the baby is a free pass because no one wants to eat lunch with a bad mother.

But what happens when you don't have a child or a car and you work at home? Here's what I've discovered. There's no excuse. The tube doesn't have the same impact because even though everyone knows it has delays, as soon as you try explaining it, the sourpuss look kicks in. That's the look that says: you should have left more time.

Why is it that when I'm late, it's my own fault, but when other people are late, it's out of their hands?

Maybe because most of the time, my lateness is costing money. Whoever I'm meeting has a babysitter. Or a meter running. Or a conference to get to. Someone is waiting for them; there is somewhere else they need to be.

I don't get upset when someone keeps me waiting because there's nowhere else I need to be. What do I have to get back to? Bed? No one counts that as a reason to become indignant.

Last week I was waiting at a restaurant for a friend to show up for dinner. She called to say she was sorry but she was driving around and couldn't find parking.

I didn't get agitated and used the time constructively to ask questions about the menu. That's 20 minutes right there.

Plus I believe in lateness karma. I think if I don't get mad when someone is running late, in the future, someone will be forgiving of me. Only that never works out.

A major component when it comes to forgiveness is the sincerity of the apology. A dramatic mea culpa goes a long way. Also, the ones that work best never include the phrase, "Well you were late last time."

It differs with genders too. When a man is late it's because he's busy. When a woman is late, it's because she's slow. And if it's a date, all is forgiven if a woman shows up looking good.

Of course I never seem to get it right. I arrive on time for people who turn up late, and turn up late for people who are on time. But given the choice, I prefer to be the one is waiting. I don't mind. Probably because I'm grateful when people turn up at all.