People Who are Chronically Late are Pathetic
30 minutes before meeting his friends, Joel would send a text: “Sorry, will be late.”
Then, he would spend the next 30 minutes aimlessly scrolling through social media, rummaging through his closet, and watching five minutes of American drama House in bed. Eventually he would leave home at the time they were supposed to meet.
Joel is used to being chronically late—the above scenario describes one of his better days.
His ex-girlfriend (who declines to be named) remembers that he would regularly make her wait, on average, for at least an hour. As a result, she would insist on meeting him at his home before every date, leaving him no excuse to turn up late.
Her patience might have been necessary for preserve her sanity, but perhaps it also enabled his behaviour.
She shares, “I would try empathising and looking at the situation from a different perspective. Maybe the behaviour is something innate that he simply can’t control. But the more chances I gave him, the more I couldn’t respect myself. It didn’t help that the importance of punctuality has been instilled in me from young.”
Their relationship ended for reasons unrelated to Joel’s chronic lateness, but his ex says his “insane, inconsiderate and insulting” habit gradually eroded her respect for him over the four years they spent together.
Joel, essentially, is a manchild.
Unfortunately, he’s not the only one who needs to grow the fuck up.
When I speak with 25-year-old Chen Jiali, she is equally unabashed in her disdain for people who are chronically late. Jiali recently organised an outing to the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the National Gallery, only to have a friend wake up 20 minutes before the meeting time. He didn’t show up in the end, while another friend was late because “google maps was inaccurate”.
She laments, “How hard is it to set some buffer time for missing a bus, missing a train, walking to the mrt or any other issues that you know can happen? Have to do something? Sure. Just tell me in advance so I don’t waste my time standing somewhere.”
Jiali also readily admits that she would be “ashamed” of herself and “strive to be on time”, if she were reprimanded for being late. But she mistakenly assumes her friends are the same.
“Despite occasionally calling my friends out for their behaviour, I haven’t seen anyone drastically change their ways. It’s as though this habit is so ingrained that they see no point in changing it anymore,” she says.
I know Jiali as someone who’s relatively laidback, so I can tell she has well and truly reached her limit.
Have to do something? Sure. Just tell me in advance.
“In all honesty, I was irritated and impatient. I felt that I had every right to be cross with people who make me wait because I put in the effort to arrive on time or even early for these people who obviously matter to me,” she says.
Still, Anne has gotten so used to waiting that she now carries a book with her at all times.
She adds emphatically, “When you’re late, you’re making people feel that you don’t respect their time. If time doesn’t matter, what’s the point of keeping track? We might as well live without clocks and let the world go down in flames.”
Anne and Jiali may seem overly dramatic, but their point is clear: being chronically late is a habit that they believe is fully within one’s control. Even worse, knowing how much this problem bothers others but refusing to put in extra effort to kick it just makes one an asshole.
Yet I suspect their frustrations are largely a matter of perspective. What if one’s ability to change doesn’t simply boil down to willpower?
What if nature, more than (or as much as) nurture, plays a part in the type of person one is?
This is what Dr Linda Sapadin, the author of How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age, tells me over email.
I write to the American psychologist and coach, who specialises in time management, after reading about her research on The Atlantic. If there’s anyone who can help me understand why some people are late all the damn time, it would be her.
For starters, she informs me that the crux of the problem for most people is not that they lack empathy, willpower, or willingness to accept responsibility. Rather, chronic lateness is more indicative of an unresolved ‘approach-avoidance’ conflict.
Dr Sapadin explains, “A part of you knows you need (or even want) to be on time, but another part has a competing impulse. This lingering resistance to a competing activity makes it tough to be committed to being on time.”
Being late is also “the gift that keeps on giving and giving”. Understandably, not showing up on time pisses off the ones waiting. But the people who are late also unwittingly perpetuate unpleasant emotions in themselves, such as panic, discouragement, depression, and denial.
Panic occurs when one stresses about what others think, what they missed, or whether they’ll fall so far behind they won’t ever catch up.
In contrast, discouragement is a “desolate, disheartening ebb state” where one is tempted to give up. Similarly, depression is accompanied by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that are “often expressed as endless apologies about all your faults”.
The last point, denial, is a stalling tactic many use to rationalise their lateness. More commonly, they see being late as a sign of “creativity”.
Dr Sapadin’s explanation on denial echoes Jiali’s experience. Her friend once pulled up an Elite Daily article that claimed chronically late people tend to be “optimistic” in order to justify her lateness.
Granted, Jiali’s friend may have done it tongue-in-cheek, but these inane rationalisations can accumulate and cripple the chronically late in the long run.
“It’s amazing how people can fool themselves,” Dr Sapadin says, and ultimately emphasises that the key to change is being honest with oneself.
If I were aggressive to everyone who was late, I might not have anymore friends.
Luckily for these people, Dr Sapadin is much more empathetic.
“You need to implement specific skills and strategies that are tailored to your personality style. This is essential, as the right advice for one style is the wrong advice for another,” she says.
When it comes to procrastination, which is fundamentally linked to being chronically late, most people fall under one of six styles: the Perfectionist, Dreamer, Worrier, Crisis-Maker, Defier, and Pleaser.
For example, a Perfectionist always has many things to attend to, so they try to fit in ‘one more thing’ before they leave. “Dare to change your pattern,” advises Dr. Sapadin. “If you get to your destination early, do something pleasurable, such as listen to music or take a stroll.”
On the other hand, a Dreamer is notoriously bad at planning how long tasks can take. To tackle this problem, Dr Sapadin suggests that they estimate how long each activity will take, and compare it to how long it actually took. Then reevaluate the estimate, instead of chalking up the actual time to sheer luck.
The latter may prove useful to Jiali’s friends, who appear to be Dreamers.
In the meantime, Jiali’s sense of humour helps her cope: “I need to manage my own expectations because I don’t want to burn bridges. If I were aggressive to everyone who was late, I might not have anymore friends.”
She even entertains herself with thoughts of being late one day to get back at those who make her wait, but eventually concedes, “I cannot bring myself to do it because I respect them and I wouldn’t want them to be waiting.”
I got used to their lateness. Call it learnt helplessness.
Similarly, Anne reasons that the love for her friends overrides their lack of respect for others’ time. If they “text sporadically to keep [her] posted of their whereabouts”, she lets matters of punctuality slide.
“As our friendship grew, I got used to the problem. Call it learnt helplessness. Sometimes, you just choose to look past this particular shortcoming and focus on their goodness,” she shrugs.
Still, as with the case of Joel’s ex, I fear that this leniency only validates the chronically late. When we tolerate (and even forgive) lateness too often, we risk reinforcing that it’s really no big deal. And when these people know they can get away with a half-assed apology, why would they bother changing?
Perhaps the key lies in acknowledging chronic lateness, without empathising or accepting it. If repeatedly calling someone out on their bullshit makes them more decent human beings in the end, then it’s worth a temporarily strained friendship.
As Dr Sapadin clearly puts, “It’s not only the events leading up to the late arrival that are agitating, but also the reputation you create for yourself when being late becomes a pattern. It doesn’t feel good when others don’t trust you to do what you say you’ll do.”
Of course, all this presupposes that most people who are chronically late can and want to be saved, which is an optimistic place to start. Unfortunately, much like sociopaths, some completely lack remorse or guilt.
As for Joel, he could not be reached for comment, but perhaps it was for the best. It’s unlikely that he would have prioritised giving me his replies on time for this article.
After all, his ex shares that he was even late on the day he wanted to break up with her.