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9 June

In defence of lateness

Why a chronically punctual person finally has compassion for latecomers.

By Emma Haslett

A few weeks ago I arrived at a meeting 15 minutes early. By the time my host arrived, a few minutes after the time our table was booked for, I was half way through a cup of coffee. “It looks like you’ve been here a while,” he said, frowning. “Yes,” I explained apologetically. “I suffer from chronic punctuality. It’s been a problem for years.” “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” he said.

But my friend, who admitted he doesn’t worry if he’s running a few minutes behind, didn’t understand what I have been through; the hours and days and weeks someone like me has wasted circling blocks, hunting for benches to perch on, standing awkwardly on street corners, looking for places to just hang around – all while waiting for other people to show up.

I don’t know why I’m like this. Maybe it’s because I grew up with an autistic sibling whose anxiety spiked when things weren’t running to schedule, or maybe it’s just because I’m one of life’s people-pleasers. Either way, it’s been my cross to bear since I was a teenager, when my punctuality was less chronic and more terminal, rendering me even less cool than I – gangly, acne-ridden, an enthusiastic school choir member – already was. Punctuality during a time of life when even a hint of enthusiasm is wildly embarrassing made me over-keen, the gauche opposite of fashionably late.

But now – callooh, callay! – I’m finally cool, according to the New York Times, which published a piece entitled “Punctuality is Having a Moment” on Monday (6 June). All of a sudden, people are showing up at events bang on time, it observed. Tina Brown, the author, confided that these days “we want to arrive to the party as early as possible, before another outbreak of Covid shuts it down”.

Here are some things I’ve done because I have been early, or because the person I was meeting was late: arrived at a railway station before it opened; walked around the same block five times; written an entire column on my phone while perched on a planter in a shopping centre; spent £250 on a dress I neither needed nor could afford because the shop was next to a meeting spot; been mistaken for a homeless person because the only bench I could find to wait on was a place where intravenous drug users often congregated (admittedly, my teenage style – “slouchy” – may have helped that person reach their conclusion).

I have slowly slurped countless solo cups of coffee and glasses of wine and apologised to dozens of waiters: “She definitely said she’ll be here soon.” And I have felt white-hot rage. Why does this person think so little of me that they are willing to force me into wasting time? Why am I sitting alone again?

After an incident few years ago I was so angry I researched it: why are some people so late? It turns out we should have nothing but compassion for our tardy brothers and sisters: it isn’t their fault, it’s called the “planning fallacy” and it describes the “tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task”.

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Essentially, late people are over-confident – even if they have done something a thousand times before, they think that this time they can do it more quickly. It’s not their fault, they’re just optimists. Which, when you think about it, isn’t very louche or nonchalant. In fact, maybe the punctual ones – wracked with anxiety, triple-checking train timetables – were the cool ones all along.

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