Lateness Sucks

There’s this Greg Savage post making the rounds on the internet about habitual lateness and how much he hates it. It adresses the main point … which is to say that it calls habitually late people rude, selfish, and inconsiderate. And of course they are. Naturally, it also includes the obligatory disclaimer about the inevitability of circumstances or sheer forgetfulness making even the most conscientious people late occaionally:

Me? Am I ever late? Sure, sometimes. That’s inevitable even with the best intentions. But I never plan to be late. I never ‘let time slide’ because my stuff is more important than yours. I am not talking about the odd occasion of lateness. I am talking about people who are routinely late. In fact, never on time. You know who I am talking about!

With that disclaimer added on, it’s tempting to say "that about sums it up" and move on.

But it doesn’t quite.

Mr. Savage is apparently Australian, so I can’t really speak to the cultural millieu he’s coming from, having never been to Australia, or even known that many Australians. But I know a lot about the USA, and I think in the US it goes beyond "inconsiderate." I think it’s often an outright power play, and that’s much, much worse.

There’s a horrible, terrible, no good very bad thing in this country called fasionably late according to the dictum of which it’s bad to be on time because being on time implies that you have nothing better to do. Show up late and you’re subtly implying that your time is at a premium – you’re popular, or busy, or just generally the kind of person who finds themselves in interestion situations.

Now, all else equal, "fashoinably late" would imply none of those things so much as that you’re just really bad at managing your time. After all, it’s possible to be busy and still on time, provided you have a good handle on how long it takes to accomplish how much. But the insidious thing about being "fasionably late" is that it doesn’t actually imply that at all, because the fact that you, and everyone you know, are doing it deliberately means that you actually can manage your time quite well, and you manage it in such a way as to deliberately waste other people’s time in the name of hollow self-promotion. Which, when you think about it, makes you an asshole.

If you follow the Urban Dictionary link, you’ll notice that (at least at the time of writing) the first definition given is:

The refined art of being just late enough (5 minutes or so) to give the impression that you are a busy, popular person that was held up with other business.

To which I say: would that it were only five minutes! What I find instead is that there’s a cultural trend that’s even worse than this, in which people try to see just how long they can get away with having you wait on them to prove the groundless point that they’re more important than you. Yes, I think being "fashionably late" has evolved from a minor social signal to the level of "Game." A lot of people are not only deliberately late, but deliberately late by quite a lot, not because they have to be, but to suggest that they can be.

What’s frustrating about this is the same thing that’s frustrating about any example of the free rider problem: society functions well to the extent that people are generally on time, and so it’s a form of stealing/exploitation to be late at the expense of people who are generally on time. Apply this to just about anything, really. Sure, it feels great to weave in and out of traffic and generally act like an asshole, but that only gets you where you’re going faster to the extent that everyone else is generally being polite and obeying the rules. When everyone drives like an asshole, you get Miami, and average travel times are slower for everyone, including you and your mad driving skillz. Just like if everyone is always late, then we all have less aggregate time. It’s better for everyone if we’re all a little square. 5pm is 5pm, and if we all make an effort to show up at 5pm if that’s what we agreed, we all have more time for all those other things that we want to do. But you can explain that to people till you’re blue in the face, and the fact unfortunately still remains that so long as they know that you’re generally on time, they personally don’t have anything to lose from being late, because there are no global incentives. That’s why we have morality, really – it’s a way of implementing global incentives in a species made up of individuals. THIS kind of lateness – the deliberate social "Game" lateness – is I think the most common form in America. And it SUCKS.

In addition to that, there’s another point I’d like to add to Mr. Savage which is that there’s a subhuman species of person who thinks that being late by roughly same amount of time all the time exonerates them from lateness because hey!, at least they’re predictable, right? Well, wrong, actually. The fact that you can consistently show up 20min. late means that you know what being on time is, you’re just calibrated wrong. So … calibrate yourself. Set your clocks ahead 20min. if that’s what it takes – but the very regularity of it gives you away.

Like all countries, Germany has its faults, but one thing that was an absolute pleasure living there was the way that everyone was always on time for everything, and that getting really angry with someone over 10min. of lateness was completely culturally acceptable. AS IT SHOULD BE.

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