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Chronemics:Clock-“wise” Nonverbal Communication

The Silent Signals of Time

I was sure I had time to do a few more things, make a few more phone calls, maybe watch the news. I had plenty of time to pack my suitcase and get to the airport. The flight wasn't leaving for three hours. So I had another bowl of cereal and read a little of the paper then looked up at the clock and realized I had an hour to pack and get to Hartsfield-Jackson.

I threw my stuff in my bag, ran down the stairs, and jumped into the car. Charged with adrenaline I sped 20 miles over the speed limit, a veritable Andretti at the Indy 500, to get to the airport in time. Searching madly for a parking space, I squealed the tires to turn sharply around the corner just as someone pulled out of one. I ran to the gate flying past hundreds of staring people. Lugging my carry-on over my shoulder like a firefighter’s pack, I arrived breathless at the gate just as they made the last call.I had made it again.I smiled with satisfaction and slowly walked on the plane.

The term “chronemics” refers to the use of time management as a form of nonverbal communication and lateness is a profound communicator. I was communicating big time.

Ten years ago after one particularly rushed trip. I sat in my airplane seat sipping my ginger ale and asked myself why I was late yet again. It seemed I was always rushing to planes. However exact 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 in front of audiences. But apparently I don’t. So instead of spending the flight reading Delta Sky magazine and picking out things I couldn’t afford, such as chair massagers and surround sound speakers, I spent that flight figuring out what I could do to satisfy my need without always running late to the airport. Among the things I added to my adrenaline list were a comedy improv class and a weekly singles group. The rush replacements worked. These days even my limo driver 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.                 

Are you ever late? Does lateness feed you? Do you constantly make people wait 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 ever called you out on it? Your use of time that involves other people can communicate to them what you think about them, the event and ultimately yourself.

For me, I communicated to everyone that my life was busy and exciting. The rush, that adrenaline high, came with every late arrival. 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 and to communicate to yourself and others that your life is full and interesting. Instead of speeding like a maniac to be on time, give yourself other opportunities to feed your fire. How about tango lessons, skydiving, hockey tickets or taking up boxing?

  • 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 then 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 10 miles across town 5 minutes before the meeting. They don’t factor in how long it will take them to get 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 prey to the "one more thing" syndrome--that is they try to always do one more thing before they leave. They check their email one more time before they go down the hall for the meeting. They make one more phone 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 know a man with a master’s degree in statistics. He calculates statistical formulas for credit ratings. He is a very bright man, but 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 schedules and ask themselves how long their activities truly take.

  • The Passive Controller:Lateness is a form of control. If you are consistently late to dinner or appointments with many people in your life 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 or make them order another drink or hold up dinner until you get there. People can get mad at you but it can make them look impatient or unreasonably demanding. After all, how are you supposed to control the external world? You can always have an excuse, the phone rang, someone came into the office with a problem, you couldn’t find your cell phone. You have power over everyone who waits for you. In fact, you may actually avoid being on time because in your mind it would communicate that you are relinquishing the power to others. 

    People who don’t have power typically use this form of time use. They are not the Big Boss. They would be uncomfortable doing anything directly to gain power, to ask for what they want, or to demand attention. By using a silent command they get the rush of control without the risk of counterattack. Again it's passive aggressiveness. 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. They can't yell at you but they can control you by making you late.
  • The Woe Is Me-er-: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 who was always late. After Ginger sat alone in one too many restaurants, she decided that she was going to write this person a letter and tell her 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 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 and sat down to watch the band for a few minutes while she waited. No Angie. She got up to call her. She returned, still no friend, but a very cute blond guy was in her seat. She struck up a conversation with the cute man. A year passed and she married him. Angie missed the wedding. She walked into the church an hour late.
  • SOSer: They scream with their lateness Notice my plight! Rescue me! Sometimes, something or many things in life are going wrong, and it is just too horrible to say out loud to anyone. 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 her co-workers with her use of time. She became habitually late. She kept everyone in our office waiting and wondering whether she was all right. This was a powerful SOS repeated over and over from a life that was sinking fast. Only when the boss sat her down and reprimanded her did the story of her ordeal come 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 any more.

  • The Big Ego:Related to the need for control is the BIG EGO. The difference is that silent Passive? 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, must sit patiently and wait for me to arrive. 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.

    I remember sitting at a conference table full of co-workers, 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 he table with the same 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.” He never asked me.
  • Hidden Anger: Sometimes we leave people waiting because we are secretly unhappy with them. We may be jealous, envious, resentful or just plain not like that person. When I say this is a secret I mean these feeling may even be a secret even from you. While the feeling swirls in your subconscious, you may not even be aware that you are mad at the person or have other negative feelings about the relationship.

    Perhaps you would like to think you never get mad 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. Like the passive controller, this person’s behavior is passive aggressive, but the lateness is reserved for only one person in your life. You could be assertive and say out loud them, “I have a problem.”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 little 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. This has led to arguments of course, but he always has an excuse.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 is never late for work or meetings with other people, just with her. This makes the lateness a very strong communication. He may be saying, “I am angry and unhappy, and I don’t know how to express it with words.” Or I do not respect you or value you as much as other people in my life.
  • The Punctually Perfect: This person is always on time with everyone in their life. They have a realistic sense of time and it is important to them to respect the value of other’s time and to show others that they are professional and considerate. They like themselves and would consider it a black mark on their credibility to be late. I have a friend who is always on time. I know that I can meet her on a street corner holding flowers and she will not leave me standing there looking like a Hari Krishna. One afternoon she was late. I knew something was wrong. Sure enough she had been in a fender bender. She called the police and then she called me to tell me she would be." ...a little late." She had left the house so early in order to be on time that she was still able to get with me only a half hour after our meeting time.I love doing things with her.She makes being a friend and business associate a breeze.

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, the use of your time communicates. If you are constantly apologizing and complaining about traffic or last-minute phone calls, listen to the message you are sending.Actions really do speak louder than words. I have focused here on your late arrivals, but being late with callbacks, e-mails and assignments also communicates volumes. We live in a “rush rush," “I am so overwhelmed "society. Your time is a valued commodity.Who are you spending it on?

Are you late often?

Who or what situations are you late for?




How many times in the past 21 days have you been late in each of those situations?

What words did you say to any people that you greeted late?

Have you been late with calls e-mails or assignments in any of these situations?

Underneath the excuse of a busy schedule, why do you think you are late?

What message do you think you are sending?

Ask yourself if you fit into any of the categories (list here)

If you would like to change that nonverbal communication, what can you change about your lateness?

Do you know someone who is often late? Have them read these categories to see which ones they fit in to.

Patti's one-on-one coaching and Personality Type and Communication Training program can help you to better understand why you or others may exhibit certain behaviors. Visit for more information.