On Being Late

Being a combination of the sociology of everyday life and the history of ideas.

Getting places on time is a ubiquitous feature of modern everyday life. The first ads for cell phones said the devices were useful for making contact with people who might be waiting for you on the wrong corner or for when you might be a little late. Other uses were secondary or came later. We train our children to be on time because not to be indicates a slovenliness of character and inconsideration towards others. Kids learn, train themselves, to be on time, and schools and dates require it of them and so will their future employers. How did this become the case? David Landes, that very distinguished economic historian, suggests that the clockmakers of early modern Switzerland set a revolution in motion when they perfected their instruments so that all of Europe and what would become the civilized world could go by the clock. People who did not catch on to that, who practiced a “manana” mentality, or what I remember being referred to as “Jewish time” because it referenced recently arrived immigrants, were just not suited to the modern world of enterprise and personal advancement. They were like children.

A remarkable feature of this habit and practice is that it is self-reinforcing because it allows people to have their schedules intersect with one another in propitious ways. You keep up your schedule with the hairdresser and the dental technician and your son’s teacher because not to do so not only unsettles your ability to organize your life but their ability to organize theirs. One hand washes the other, all because an elaborate division of labor requires it. The reasons for not being late are primarily practical rather than moral. The work day starts at nine and ends at five-- until recently, when any set of hours will do for an increasing number of jobs, the coordination of the work proceeding through computers rather than being in the same place at the same time. But whatever the mechanism by which time coordination is accomplished, the he or she who violates time requirements is the one who suffers. That may mean losing a job or missing a deadline for a delivery or being chastised. That means people will enforce timeliness on themselves. It does not require norms whereby obloquy is poured upon people who are derelict in their timeliness nor does it require laws to enforce timeliness, for then the courts would be overwhelmed with minor maladictions. No, timeliness is enforced by an invisible hand every bit as rigorous as that discovered by Adam Smith, and perhaps essential to it: self interest serves the public or collective interest in keeping the railroads and steel mills running on time. It is part of the modern social structure.

Being on time raises existential issues. The girl you inadvertently stood up because you got the time for a date wrong could have been your soulmate. Or you came late for an interview and so blew your opportunity for a particular career. Or you were rushing to get to an appointment and stepped off the curb without looking and so got yourself killed. Aristotle, that most secular mind, would have written all of this off as coincidence, while others, like Leibnitz, would insist that there must be a reason, such as you were preoccupied with a thought about work when you stepped off the curb, and so the event of your death was not an accident but was in some sense your own fault.

A social structural situation in which lateness is always somebody’s fault is when occupations keep their clients and customers waiting past the time when the service is due. Your eye doctor has you wait around the office so his technicians can do all the chargeable things they can before you are summoned to see the eye doctor. This waiting around is his fault for not having organized his office well enough so that people who don’t need the whole treatment are moved along more quickly. A restaurant that is overwhelmed so that patrons are kept waiting a long time for their meals to be served is said to be “in the weeds”, the backlog of orders not likely to be straightened out until the main dinner hours are past. Whatever the cause, this state of affairs is the restaurant’s fault because the patron had come to dinner not just to eat but also to be pampered and not have to serve himself. A restaurant lets a person for an hour or so be coddled by others, and keeping patrons waiting is not doing that. I may have to wait on my boss until he gets around to me, but I don’t have to wait on the restaurant where, for a moment, I am the boss.

Aristotle, to be fair, had other fish to fry than by using coincidence as the concept by which to deal with the inevitability of finding fault. Aristotle was fighting against the Homeric tradition, wherein gods play favorites and may or may not influence events. That idea lingers on in the idea of fate: some things are bound to happen, though they are only especially important ones, like who you choose for a mate or what career you settled into. Looking back, events cohered because of what seemed to be coincidence but could not really have been that because of what that choice made your life into. It was too important to have happened by coincidence.  It doesn’t take a physicist to realize that every moment is the knife edge of time whereby multiple alternative universes are created, though that more than one is “real” seems to me a metaphysical question. It is also to be remembered that Genesis dispensed with a sense of fate. God intervened in events only on those rare occasions when He said He would, as when He said that Abraham would bring forth a great nation. Most of the time, people are on their own. Joseph was picked up by slave traders either because he was lucky or because his brothers had sold him to them. Only the rules of narrative guide what comes next or what results from misadvertances such as being late.

Being late is different from other disorders having to do with time that also go by the name of being late. Late bloomers are late in career advancement, which does not have to do with a knife edge of coordination in time but rather with a mismatch of what is considered nominal schedules for advancement. A correct use of the concept is students being late in turning in their papers. The product rather than the person is late, but that is all the same. There are deadlines for papers for the practical reason that a teacher needs to grade them so that he or she can meet his own schedule for turning in grades and not be late in doing so. So here again being late is a failure at coordination. Some people also argue that late papers give their authors an unfair advantage in that they have had more time to do them, which is to invoke a different meaning of time, as a measure of fair competition, as happens in sports, when, as the Chinese adage went, you can have a minute or a quarter century to draw a perfect butterfly and whether it is or is not perfect is independent of how long you took to master how to do it. Should you be punished for a paper turned in late? After all, it is the same paper. How steeply should your grade be discounted if it is to do nothing more than make you conscientious? The value of the paper is not commensurate with the discount. So we arrive at the idea that time can serve as a penalty, either by restricting your liberty as in a prison sentence, or taking you off the ice for improper checking. How much time should you suffer as punishment for a misdeed?

As Landes observed, what is important about time is that it is broken into units of ever greater precision rather than just left as an unmodified duration. Dante, who is so clearly medieval in this way as in so many others, orders punishments as either forever or in tens of thousands of years, which simply means a lot. (That is being charitable to Dante, who really may have meant thousands of years when he said that.) Dante had no sense of breaking time down so that length of punishment was weighed against the severity of the crime, that not arising until the development of prison systems in the late Eighteenth Century, people measuring off how much time they had left before they would be released. We moderns live in the midst of carefully measured time and so are always late.