The Rules of Lateness

“You cannot respect someone but disrespect their time.”
― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

When I was young, a co-worker and I went to a breakfast meeting in Minneapolis. The meeting was scheduled for 8:00 a.m. and we were there. At ten after, Bruce stood up to leave. I was surprised, but accompanied him out the door. He answered the expression on my face with this statement: “If someone is more than ten minutes late, it’s wrong. With other work to do we can’t sit here frittering away the day.”

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Photo by the author.

Actually I don’t remember the exact words, though I believe I do recall the restaurant. What made an impression was the principle involved. People should be punctual. Ten minutes was the rule. You should never be more than ten minutes late.

Rules like this may not apply to all cultures, for sure. It was certainly not my experience in Mexico or Puerto Rico, countries I lived in for a year each. (When living in Puerto Rico I invited people to a “book party” that was to start at 8:00. I panicked when no one was there still at 9:00. The hostess where the party was being held kept telling me not to worry, that everyone would be there. Sure enough, everyone I invited arrived almost simultaneously, on foot, 90 minutes after eight.)

The American business culture, by way of contrast, places a high premium on punctuality. About ten years or so ago Esquire magazine offered up a tidy summary of the matter in a little etiquette piece called “The Rules of Lateness.”

After a brief intro, they dish it out like straight.

10 minutes

Call, apologize, and say you’re running five minutes behind. This puts the inconvenienced parties at ease and keeps their eyes off the clock.

EdNote: This brief instruction sets the table. The person waiting is being inconvenienced. We all know how elastic time is. One minute can feel like two years when you’re uncertain how long it will really be. Waiting for your doctor, waiting for your waitress to come back to take your order, waiting for an important phone call…. we’ve all experienced these things and know how agonizing they can get once we begin to feel antsy.

20 minutes

Call, apologize, and provide an excuse. (“I left without my wallet.”) If the group’s becoming impatient, at least they’re coddled.

30 minutes

Call, apologize, and encourage them to start without you. Food can be a palliative.

40 minutes

Call, apologize, and blame traffic. They’ll think it’s a lie, but it’s one they’ve used before.

50 minutes

Call, apologize, and cite a pet or child issue.

One Hour

Call, apologize profusely, and consider picking up a gift. Then again, maybe you should just get there. You’re late enough already.

Back in the 80’s we didn’t have cell phones, and I suppose it’s possible the fellow we were s’posed to meet could have gotten caught in traffic or even had an accident. Nowadays, however, we’re armed to the teeth with devices to ping one another at any time, nearly anywhere.

That’s why it might be helpful to know the rules.

Meantime, life goes on. Have a super weekend.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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