The Silent Signals of Lateness
by Patti Wood MA
Do you find yourself running late? Is there someone in your life that you find yourself waiting for? I was sure I had time to do a few more things, make a few more calls, catch up on the news, and plenty of time to pack my suitcase and get to the airport. The flight wasn’t leaving for 4 hours. So, I had another bowl of cereal, read the headlines, before I suddenly realized I was running late. I threw my stuff in my bag, ran down the stairs, and jumped into the car. Charged with adrenaline I sped to the airport. Searching madly for a parking space, ran to the gate arriving breathless as they made the last call. I had made it again. I smiled with satisfaction and slowly walked on the plane. Yes, in the old days I always arrived on time, my I was a last minute "rusher." The way you use time communicates. The way you use time, arriving rushed or late communicated. The term "chronemics" refers to the use of time management as a form of nonverbal communication and if you have ever had to wait for someone who was running late, you know that you had some strong feelings about what their tardiness was saying to you!
Are you ever late? Does lateness feed you? Do you constantly have people waiting on you? Do you know people who drive you crazy because they are always late? Have you ever admonished someone for always being late? Has someone called you on it?
Many years ago, after this rushed trip, I sat in my airplane seat sipping my ginger ale and asked myself why I was always rushing to planes. I am a stickler for time, arriving so early for dinner meetings and speeches that people comment on it, but I was with time in the rest of my life, I always seemed to rush to catch my flights. I knew that we do things because they reward us in some way, and I asked myself what I got from running late. Almost immediately I realized the reward: a rush, a race car driver’s high. I ran late to feed my excitement-loving soul. The funny thing is that I am a professional speaker. You would think I would get enough adrenaline standing up on stages in front of huge audiences. But apparently, I didn't. So instead of spending the flight, watching movies, I could do to satisfy that need for a "rush" without running late to the airport. I ended among other things, with taking an incredibly fun comedy improv class and now go see live music at least once a week! The rush replacements worked. These days even my airport limo driver Lewis thinks I leave too early to get to the airport. But I like being on time too much to regard his teasing. Lateness doesn't feed my soul anymore.
Here are other ways that lateness communicates. Look at the list for the likely match or combination of matches to your issue.
1. THE RUSHER
Lateness feeds the adrenaline junkie. If you love thrills and excitement, and there are not enough in your life, you may use running late as a way of getting your excitement fix. Instead of speeding like a maniac to be on time, give yourself other opportunities to feed your fire. Perhaps tango lessons, skydiving, hockey or regular live concert tickets or taking up Judo, or boxing. If your lateness is affecting your ability to do something well, ask yourself why you feel the need to give yourself an excuse, being late, to not do a good job? If you are breaking your promise to others to arrive at an agreed upon time some self-reflection is critical.
2. THE TIME-CHALLENGED
Face it, some people are clueless about time. They just don’t understand that an hour has sixty minutes. They say they will be there in 15 minutes and they arrive 45 minutes later, truly unaware that they are late. This personality might be called the absent-minded professor. They also can’t seem to understand how long an activity truly takes. For example, they think they can wait to leave the office for a meeting ten miles across town five minutes before the meeting. They don’ t factor in how long it will take them to get to their meeting, materials packed up, how long it will take them to get to the car, the traffic on the way and how long it may take to find a place to park. They also don’ t allow for the unexpected delays such as an accident on the road. Because they have an unrealistic sense of time, they tend to fall privy to the "one more thing" phenomenon. That is why they try to do one more thing before they leave. They check their e-mail one more time before they go down the hall for the meeting. They make one more call before they leave the house for the appointment. Because their sense of time is unrealistic, they think they can stretch it and bend it like silly putty.
I have a friend with a master’s degree in statistics. He calculates statistical formulas for credit ratings. He is a very bright man. He is always late. Talking to him about it didn’t change his behavior. Because he is almost always exactly an hour late, when I need to meet with him at 6:00 I tell him 5:00. He shows up at 6:00. We can still be friends. The good news is that if these people are clued in about their issue and they want to change, they can. The time-challenged just need to realistically examine their schedule and ask themselves how long their activities truly take. If they are an employee, or friend you can help them by talking it through, for example saying, "The drive may take 20 minutes, but finding a space in the parking garage is a bear so give an extra 15 minutes for that, so a 35 minute travel time would be reasonable." Or, "The official start time of the meeting/event, is 8:00 but, the conversation and networking before that are critical so a 7:30 arrival is more accurate and that may mean you need to be a hour and half earlier than you might think." or, "You know one of the tactics I use to make sure I get someplace on time is set my phone to alarm at the time I absolutely need to leave my desk to get there."
Lateness is a form of control. If you are consistently late to dinner or appointments because you spent a few extra minutes getting ready or you didn’t give enough leeway for traffic, you may be saying to the person who is waiting: "I am more important than you. You must wait for me." By making others wait you have power over them even if it’s only the power to make them tap their fingers on the desk, make them order another drink or hold up dinner till you get there. It is passive aggressiveness in its finest form, the invisible attack.
If you are the wait time controller, people can get mad at you but hey, in your mind it just makes them look impatient or unreasonably demanding. After all, how are you supposed to control the external world? You can always have an excuse – you got a last-minute email, the phone rang, someone came into my office with a problem or you couldn't find your keys. You have power over everyone who waits for you. In fact, you may avoid being on time because it would communicate that you are kowtowing to others.
This form of time use is typically used by people who don't have power or want to manipulate you under the table. They are not officially your boss, but they are the boss of your waiting time. They might be uncomfortable doing anything directly to gain power, to ask for what they want, to demand attention. By using a silent command, they get the rush of control without the risk of counterattack. Children are the true masters. They can’t find their homework or their right shoe, they need a drink of water, they have trouble with their buttons, anything to postpone bedtime or school.
4. LOW SELF ESTEEM
When lateness doesn't matter because you don’t matter, then perhaps your lateness communicates your low self-esteem or your lack of confidence. If you think, no one will notice anyway, you are discounting your value as a human being. And why would you worry about others if you don’t have any concern for yourself. It doesn't matter if you’re rude or inconsiderate, if you just plain don't matter. A lack of respect for yourself inhibits your ability to respect others.
My friend Ginger had a college chum and friend of many years Angie who was always late. After Ginger sat alone waiting in one too many restaurants, she shared with me that she was going to email Angie that she didn’t want to be friends anymore. I knew from Ginger's conversations that Angie was very unhappy about her weight, discouraged that no one asked her out, and because she couldn’t find a job in her field, she was working for her dad. I suspected she wasn’t feeling very good about herself. I suggested to Ginger she try to meet with her friend face-to-face to tell her how her lateness made her feel. They arranged to meet at a restaurant where there was entertainment. Ginger arrived at the bar to watch the band. No friend. She got up to call her. Returned, still no friend, but a very cute blond guy was in her seat. She struck up a conversation with the cute man. Moved in with him three days later. A year passed and she married him. Angie missed the wedding. She walked into the church an hour late.
5. SOS! NOTICE ME
Sometimes, something or many things in life are going wrong, and it is just too horrible to say out loud. So, you communicate with your tardiness. Your lateness says: Isn't it horrible that I'm late? Please ask me why, so I can tell you the horrible thing I am dealing with. I knew someone who had been attacked in her home. She was living far away from her family for the first time and had no close friends. There was no one to share her pain with.
She told us with her time use. She became habitually late. She kept everyone in our office waiting wondering whether she was all right. It was a powerful SOS repeated over and over from a life that was sinking fast. It was only when the boss sat her down and reprimanded her that the story of her traumatic ordeal came tumbling out. The boss listened to her and recommended among other things that she share her burden with a few of us. We supported her and soon she didn’t need her silent cry of lateness to communicate.
6. THE BIG EGO
Related to the need for control is the BIG EGO. The difference is that silent controllers have no assigned power and big egos do. They feel they have the right to be late—that it comes as part of their royalty package. The big ego says with his time use, I am so important that you the little peon who is waiting must sit patiently for me to arrive. As if they should be greeted with a standing ovation and Hail Caesars. You know the type: the big boss who keeps everyone waiting for the meeting to start. They come sauntering in smiling, not caring about their rudeness. In fact, they may revel in it. Or they come in ranting and complaining about the big problem they had to solve or the disaster they averted before they could honor you with their presence. Only the Pope and Superhero and Super Heroines have saving superpowers worth waiting for.
I remember sitting at a conference table full of coworkers, waiting for the president of the company to arrive. This happened every meeting and ended with the same ritual. He would walk through the conference room door, go over and get his doughnuts asking the female nearest him to get him coffee all the while greeting a selective few people at the table and asked them the same odd greeting. "Hey, how are you feeling?" If he had asked me that question, I would have been tempted to reply. "Miffed and insulted by your lack of consideration." But he never listened to anyone’s answer and he never asked me.
7. HIDDEN ANGER or Other Hidden Secrets
Sometimes we leave people waiting because we hate them. Okay, "hate" may be too strong a word. Let’s say, because we are secretly unhappy with them. We may be jealous, envious, resentful or just plain do not like that person. When I say this is a secret, I mean these feelings may even be a secret even from yourself. While the feeling swirls in your subconscious, you may not even be aware that you are mad or have other negative feelings.
Perhaps you would like to think you never get mad at anyone because you are just too nice a person. Perhaps the person you leave waiting has too much power over you for it to be safe to be mad at them directly. In any case, like a child who sticks out their tongue at someone when their back is turned, when you leave a friend waiting at a restaurant by themselves, standing on a street corner, sitting in a conference room, you are acting just as childish. Again, this behavior is passive aggressive. You could be assertive and say out loud, "I have a problem with you." But it is somehow easier to show up late.
I know someone whose husband is habitually late. She sits in the living room dressed for a cocktail party or dinner with friends wondering if he has been in a car accident. Trips to pick up one thing at Home Depot so they can finish with a project become three-hour marathons of waiting while the paint hardens on the brushes. She and her children have waited for him to eat so many dinners they are now used to eating at 8:00. Her family and friends have experienced her stress and humiliation as they waited with her so now, they suggest plans that don’t include him. This has led to arguments of course, but he always has an external excuse for his lateness. In her mind the message he is sending is that his work and tasks are more important than she is. Underneath there may be a bigger message. He may be saying, "I am angry and unhappy, and I don’t know how to express it." Or I have found someone else that is more important, and I don’t know how to say it with words."
8. PROMISE BREAKER
Know that if you have an adult in your life that is late on a reoccurring basis and their behavior doesn’t fit into the Low Self Esteem SOS or Hidden Message category and your requests to honor their promise to you to show up on time are broken again and again there is a problem. An agreement to be somewhere is a promise. Someone is giving their word they will do something and not doing it is a broken promise. They are not a person who honors their word. They are affecting your trust.
If they make excuses every time, there is a problem. An excuse is not a true apology How to Make a Proper Apology and anyone who makes constant excuses is communicating to you they don’t have to change, that their circumstances are more important than their promise to you.
If they don’t seem deeply embarrassed and apologetic by their disrespect for your time, there is a problem and if they promise they will do better, and don’t there is a problem. As silent as time is it can scream that there is something wrong. Don’t just seethe with silence in response. Say out loud to them that they are a promise breaker. If you fear or are concerned about how they will respond, please read my articles on malignant narcissists to find out if you are dealing with someone abusive and dangerous. How to Recognize a Dangerous Person
Lateness does not always have a Freudian or hidden message. And you may rarely be left tapping your foot or checking your watch. But remember, time communicates. If you are walking through the door apologizing and complaining about traffic or last-minute phone calls, listen to the message you are sending. If you know someone who is always late, it may be time to have an ERASER conversation with them. ERASER Method. It starts with the specifics of their lateness, "You have been at least 20 minutes late for the last three weeks I have told you it upsets me, it’s effecting my ability to respect and or trust you…."
Now you have the handbook for the silent signals of lateness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patti Wood MA is a Professional Speaker and a Communication and Body Language expert based in Atlanta, GA. Patti’s clients include Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and associations, and she is the author of nine books including, "SNAP Making the Most of First Impressions Body Language and Charisma."
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patti Wood MA is a Professional Speaker and a Communication and Body Language expert based in Atlanta, GA. Patti’s clients include Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and associations. She has written nine books including SNAP Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma and People Savvy.