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The Psychology of Lateness

Why you should be eight minutes late, but not one more.

Source: Wikicommons

The advent of the railways in the 19th century forced towns in England to align themselves with London Time, or Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Some towns held out for longer than others. One town that stood its ground was Oxford, and for some time, the great clock on Tom Tower at Christ Church featured two minute hands. Still today, if one is about five minutes late in Oxford, one can claim to be 'running on Oxford time’; and Great Tom, the loudest bell in the city, rings out 101 times every night at five past nine.

Of course, no one bears a grudge if you are just five minutes late, which is why the 'Oxford time' excuse is a bit of a joke. To be five minutes late is not really to be late. 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 is out of your control (e.g. an elephant on the motorway), 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”. It is particularly rude to be late to a formal or important occasion such as a wedding or funeral, or one involving many parts and precise timings such as an elaborate dinner party or civic event.

Being late insults others, but it also undermines the person who is late, because it may betray a lack of intelligence, self-knowledge, will power, or empathy. For instance, it may be that the person who is late has set unrealistic goals and overscheduled his day, or underestimated the time that it takes to travel from one place to another.

But there are also some more perfidious reasons for being late than mere mediocrity. Some involve anger and aggression, and others self-deception. Let’s start with anger and aggression. Angry people who behave with almost exaggerated calm and courtesy might nevertheless express their anger through passive means, that is, through (conscious or unconscious) resistance to meeting the reasonable expectations of others. Examples of passive-aggressive behaviour include creating doubt and confusion; forgetting or omitting significant facts or items; withdrawing usual behaviors such as making a cup of tea, cooking, cleaning, or having sex; shifting blame; and, of course, being late—often on a frequent and unpredictable basis. As the name suggests, passive-aggressive behaviour is a means of expressing aggression covertly, and so without incurring the full emotional and social costs of more overt aggression. It does, however, prevent the underlying issue or issues from being identified and resolved, and can lead to a great deal of upset and resentment in the person or people on its receiving end.

Now let’s talk about the second perfidy, self-deception. As we have seen, being late, especially egregiously or repeatedly late, sends out the message, “I am more important than you”. Of course, one can, and often does, send out a message without it being true—indeed, precisely because it isn't true. Thus, a person may be late because he feels inferior or unimportant, and being late is a way for him to impose himself on a situation, attract maximal attention, and even take control of proceedings. You may perhaps have noticed that some people in the habit of being late are also in the habit of making a scene out of it: apologising profusely, introducing themselves to everyone in turn, moving furniture around, asking for a clean glass, and so on. Needless to say, such behavior far from excludes an element of passive-aggression.

Staying with self-deception, being late could also be a form of resistance, a way of showing one’s disapproval for the purpose of the meeting, or resentment for it’s probable outcome. In the course of psychotherapy, an analysand is likely to display analogous resistance in the form not only of being late, but also of changing the topic, blanking out, falling asleep, or entirely missing appointments. In the context of psychotherapy, such behaviors suggest that the analysand is close to recalling repressed material but fearful of the consequences.

I ought to point out that being late is not necessarily unhealthy or pathological. Sometimes, being late is your unconscious (intuition) telling you that that you don’t actually want to be there, or that it would be better for you not to be there—for instance, it could be that a meeting (or even a job) is not the best use of your time, or will inevitably work against your own best interests. Note that headaches can serve a similar function—they certainly do for me.

Whenever you are late, you can learn a great deal simply by asking yourself, "Why exactly am I late?" Even if it is ‘only’ because you are too busy, why are you too busy? Often, we keep ourselves as busy as possible so as not to be left alone with our deepest thoughts and feelings, which is, of course, highly counterproductive in the short, medium, and long term. And this is another reason for being late: to avoid being left with no one and nothing but ourselves (thank God for smartphones!).

Finally, I have a little confession to make. In many social situations, I am often exactly eight minutes late. Why? Well, it goes without saying that being early is just as rude, if not more so, than being late, while being exactly on time can sometimes catch out your host (I myself am often caught out by people who are bang on time, which I guess is a form of me being late). On the other hand, being eight minutes late is not perceived as being late, and gives your host just enough time to sit down for a couple of minutes, gather his or her thoughts, and begin to look forward to your arrival.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.

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