Sorry I'm Late

Brian Taylor

November 16, 2009

This past summer, I taught two graduate classes at a German university. I had assumed that the German reputation for punctuality would carry over to the classroom. But on the first day of class, every student in my 6 p.m. class was late. Same on the second day, and the third.

I was a bit miffed, and announced to the class on the third day that I would, from then on, delay starting until 6:10 p.m., since apparently they had trouble getting to class on time. A kid in the front row raised his hand, and said, "So, you mean we'll start at 6:25?"

By then, I was angry. If I had meant 6:25 p.m., I would have said it. The kids saw that I was confused, and explained: The German system of time relies on the "academic quarter hour," or das akademische Viertel.

I was sure they were pulling my leg, but they were completely serious. Everyone assumes that everyone else will be late, and that professors will be the latest of all. The actual time listed in the schedule is intentionally incorrect. Unless the listed time has the suffix "s.t." (sine tempore or without extra time), then the actual start is 15 minutes after the stated time, or "c.t." (cum tempore, with extra time). And c.t. is the default: If there is no suffix, then a 6 p.m. class starts at 6:15 p.m.

Leave it to the Germans to figure out how to be late on time.

Here in the States, we don't have a nice tidy rule like that. And yet most meetings, at every level, still start late.


Look, most of us don't like waiting. In fact, we hate it when someone else is late. But most of us also avoid being early; we seem happy to force others to wait around for us. All of that time spent waiting around has given me a chance to pick out some patterns. Here are four. I predict as soon as you read my four rules of lateness, you will recognize the behavior of several of your colleagues, and maybe yourself.

The Platonic traveler. Plato's conception of being was dualistic: There is an imperfect world of things around us, and a higher-order world of pure mind, or forms. Chronically late people live in the imperfect world, but believe they can travel inside their own minds. If their house is 11 minutes away from the campus, without traffic or stoplights, then they assume that they can actually travel from their home to the meeting room in 11 minutes. Of course, there are school buses, problems with parking, garbage trucks blocking the alley, and so on.

So when the repeat offender finally arrives, 10 minutes late, the rest of the folks at the meeting will be treated to a breathless summary of the unique event that made the person late this time. And it's true: Who knew there would be a school field trip loading up in the parking lot?

The point is that that's not the point. If a (different) unique event repeatedly prevents you from arriving on time, then you need to leave earlier. You have to allow for the average length of the trip, not the trip in the world of Platonic forms.

Just record your arrival times at meetings for a couple of weeks. If you are always late, you are a Platonic traveler. In the real world, though, you are a pain in the neck.

The paradox of the busy. The busier you are, the more likely you will be on time. Busy people manage their time well because it is valuable. They develop rules to avoid frittering away the day. Competent people adjust; ambitious people improve their skills. If you can get better at your job (and time management is a big part of most jobs), then you will be given more responsibility.

Incompetent people believe they are busy, but they are just inefficient. Colleagues who are always late are revealing signs of a larger incompetence in many other, less visible, parts of their lives.

Generally, we measure and manage any resource more carefully as it becomes valuable. We measure lettuce by the head, and store it in big bins. We measure diamonds by carats (that's .0071 ounces), and display them in glass cases on black velvet. Well, "busy" means time is valuable. So rational busy people should measure time more accurately, and manage it more efficiently. Hence, competent busy people are rarely late.

Closeness hurts. For this group of latecomers, the closer their office is to the room, the later they arrive at the meeting. If someone is coming from another city, the meeting's importance is somehow mentally elevated. Even if they just have to walk to another building, they tend to be on time.

But if the session is just down the hall, they wait until the last minute, maybe dial up one more co-author, grade one more paper. Then when Ms. Close does show up, five minutes late, she says, "Oh, sorry I'm late. I was just making a phone call."

And that excuses being late … how?

The first will be last. Mr. First shows up, parks his folders, sees the room is empty, and heads for the coffeepot. Because he is two minutes early, he chats up the staff. He finally arrives 10 minutes late, but his papers and BlackBerry sit there in mute proxy, a talisman of timeliness.

I have seen meetings turn into Molière set pieces, almost but never quite getting started, for 20 minutes or more. Folks take turns, saying, "Oh, Smith's not here. I'm going to get a soda. Anyone want cookies?" Smith comes back, but by that time Mbutu has left to retrieve a book. "We can't start without Mbutu; I'll just be gone a minute." Grrrrrrrr.

Those four types are the reason we always start late. The strange thing is that all meetings start late, even though we would all prefer punctuality. So why don't we fix the problem? For the same reason that we can't fix the problem of too much noise in restaurants: Each of us could speak more quietly in a restaurant, and the noise level would fall drastically. But I value conversation at my table more than at the next table, and so I speak loudly enough to be heard over the din, even though I may get dirty looks.

In the same way, people who are chronically late to meetings pay a small reputational cost. But they hate waiting more than they value a reputation for being considerate of others.

There are obvious remedies, but they involve beheading late people in the hallway with a broadsword. (An ax doesn't appear to work, at least in my experience as a department chair. Other department chairs have reported some success with Tasers, but I'm not convinced.) Organizations that take the problem seriously can solve it, of course, through a combination of shaming and actual fines. The broadsword might be tamed down to this: Repeat offenders could find themselves chairing a committee on letterhead compliance, or on a library-card color scheme.

Even without such sanctions, however, there are limits to how late most people are willing to be. Five or seven minutes late, and most of us aren't really ashamed. But arriving 20 minutes late is embarrassing. And to keep others waiting for half an hour violates a pretty serious, if unspoken, social norm.

We tend toward lateness because each of us hates waiting more than we feel bad about making others wait. But manners and conventions are precisely about solving that sort of problem. So let's work together. To paraphrase Erich Segal: Being on time means never having to say you're sorry.

Michael C. Munger is chair of political science at Duke University, a position he has occupied since 2000. He has presided over scores, and has suffered through hundreds, of meetings in that time. And at almost every one of those meetings, someone has come in and said, "Oh, sorry I'm late. ..."