When I meet a particular acquaintance for lunch in a restaurant, I always tell her the reservation is for 30 minutes earlier than it really is. Why? Because she is never on time and I don't want to sit alone at a table stewing for half an hour.
For years, I have watched as AYSO soccer coaches call a practice for noon and have players saunter in at 12:30 p.m., their moms strolling in behind them carrying a fresh cup of Starbuck's -- lest anyone be uncertain about why they were late. We have parents in our old elementary school who used to bring their kids to school 10 minutes late each day just to miss the long drop-off line. What the kids were also missing was the first 10 minutes of classroom instruction, not to mention the fact that they disrupted the class mid-lesson when they walked in. But did these always-late parents care? No, not really. "I don't like waiting in lines," one mother said matter-of-factly and by way of explanation. "This way I can pull right up to the front of the building, my son hops out and goes to his class. So he misses attendance roll call -- no big deal."
But it is a big deal. Try applying the "what if we all did this" rule and you'll see what I mean. What if we all brought our kids to school 10 minutes late? That mom did it because she thinks only of herself and her own convenience.
Like it or not, being on time for things is one of rules of civility. Yet tardiness has become a way of life, it seems. We just accept it. We invite people over for dinner at 6 p.m. and just know in our hearts they won't show up until 6:45 p.m. I am guilty of this every time I lie about our lunch date time to my acquaintance.
The thing is, good manners are learned behaviors. We are not born knowing the things to do to show respect. We learn them. And a whole generation is now learning that tardiness is the norm. We show up to events when we damn well please and we do so without apology. My cousin, married to a doctor, says her husband always winds up with a waiting room full of patients -- not because he over-schedules them but because they show up 15 minutes late for their appointment. This happens every day, she says. At first, I didn't believe her, but I checked with my own doctor and heard the same story from the front office. "Appointment times don't matter," the woman who staffs the front desk said, "people come in here with every excuse in the book -- they couldn't find parking, they had traffic -- but nobody really tries to get anywhere on time anymore."
One woman I know says she never gets to a party at the starting hour because she would be mortified if she were the first one there. Even the irrefutable Miss Manners, Judith Martin, weighed in in a column on this:
"Why no one wants to arrive first is a matter that has always bewildered Miss Manners. You get to talk to the hosts, you don't have to forage for food and drink, and you have an excuse for being the first to leave."
Most of the time these chronically late people don't even bother apologizing. And if they do, they make some off-hand reference to traffic -- as if the fact that Los Angeles has traffic came as a news flash to them that very day.
Sorry, but I just don't buy it. There was a terrific episode this season on "Modern Family" where patriarch Jay Pritchett is fed up with waiting for his young wife Gloria who always takes her sweet time getting ready and makes them chronically late for everything -- including a dinner reservation at a hot restaurant. Gloria finally admits it is because she likes to make an entrance and have everyone tell her how nice her dress is, how beautiful she looks. I think the writers got close to the truth -- the making an entrance part -- but there's more to it than just that.
I think people who are chronically late do so because they are rude, inconsiderate and more than a little self-absorbed. There is no way to sugar-coat it. They don't see anyone else's time as valuable so they have no problem wasting it. They may think -- and want us to believe -- that their tardiness speaks to their importance or that their lives are so very busy (and ours aren't?) that their behavior should be excused. But at the end of the day the message they send is this: You and your time don't matter. It's all about me.
Not any more, former lunch acquaintance, not any more.