The Etiquette of Being Late.

Being late happens. Here’s the plain, non-sugarcoated truth about what to do when you’re late or waiting for someone who’s late, and how to make up for it both in the moment and in the future.

For the purpose of conversation, I will refer to the below scenarios resulting from a person’s affinity towards tardiness and the given circumstance:

For definition and your thought processes:

Seldom late – Generally on time. Lateness isn’t a quality you associate with this person.

Perpetually late – Almost always is more than 15 minutes late.

Relatively uncontrollable – Examples include: last minute subway rerouting, coming from another appointment that ran late and was not possible to scoot out of, babysitter for a child you are responsible for shows up late, personal injury, extenuating circumstances

Controllable – Examples include: no planned professional time with anyone before, roommate in bathroom, slow but running subway / normal traffic, no good outfit, getting more work done, phone call (unless from other country), weather

ok, now that we have a framework….

Before Arrival:

Luckily for us, it’s 2011, and you likely have at least a basic cell phone. If you’re running late, communicate. Don’t text, call. Leave a message if no answer, then send follow up text, and email if you can. Be direct and realistic about your ETA. This applies to A, B, C, and D…. even if you are without service, as soon as it’s back, you are obligated to let the other party know that you will be late.

If you are doing the waiting, it is your right to contact the person after 15 minutes to find out where they are, and leave after 30 minutes if there has been no communication. Give them the benefit of the doubt (A or B) until proven guilty (C or D), but you don’t have to needlessly wait, either. If you leave though, make sure you follow up in a bit to make sure that your acquaintance is ok.

If you are going to be late in a work context, try to at have another staff member fill in or at least call in your absence, and reschedule if you will be more than 15 minutes late. It will reflect poorly on your entire business, not just you, if you are late, so better to be proactive than reactive in this situation. And, hopefully you aren’t a B or D, because it might have negative implications internally at your office. Coworkers will get tired of covering for you and you may eventually find yourself left high and dry.

After Arrival:

Apologize. Recognize that your tardiness was unfair

  • If you fall into A and explain the circumstance, there should not be a problem.
  • If you fall into B and explain the circumstance, you sound like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. So, don’t bother over-explaining, because it doesn’t help your cause. Instead, make a resolution to be on time whenever it is possibly in your control so that your sob story could some day hold weight. 
  • Ah, the C category. Hope it’s not your first time meeting someone, because they’ll get the wrong impression for sure. Best here to state how much you value timeliness and recognize your mistake.
  • If you’re in D, you have a problem, because you can’t make excuses and people will get tired of meeting up with you. Your apology will sound completely insincere, and unlike the B’s, you couldn’t possibly shift the blame to something else. If you really value that relationship, find a way to make that apology sincere by changing future actions. Shedding a tear may help.

If you are super late, don’t just profusely apologize; buy the other person a drink or dinner and be WELL on time the next time.

Be mindful of the other person’s timeframe, and if you don’t know, ask. Just because you are late, don’t make them late if they had something planned afterward. If that only gives you another half hour, tough. But, being in A or C here is helpful, because you will probably be shown a little more flexibility because of your track record.

For the person waiting, it’s ok (in fact, probably good) if you’re ticked and let the late person know. Don’t make the entire gathering stink, but it’s ok to express disappointment and hope that it will not happen again. If you do not express this sentiment, it’s unfair to both of you for the future.

Prevention is the best form of dealing with lateness.

If you fall into categories B or D, you have a problem. So give yourself a chance next time. Plan ahead. Look up route. Check for delays. Budget an extra 10-15 for stuff that just plain happens (slow subway, roommate in bathroom…). Bring an umbrella or hoodie if it’s rainy. Wear shoes you can walk in. Don’t overbook and allow reasonable time for items on your calendar. Be realistic. Buy a functioning watch and set it 15 minutes fast (and then forget that you did). Even when uncontrollable things happen, you should have made every effort to be more than on time, because you know you have a problem.

ALSO, B and D, if you choose to change your ways, don’t be surprised or upset if someone shows up late on you. Why? They’ve probably factored in your tardiness to their own time of arrival. That’s totally fair. Until you have a better track record, you can’t complain, although you can absolutely tease the person that you beat them there and that you will continue these victories. 

If you’re in A or C, you obviously don’t usually have a problem, but time is clearly a value to you. Think about what made you late, and how you can avoid it in the future. Also, remember that just how you didn’t mean to be late or have other ill-intent, others generally don’t either. So, next time you’re on the waiting end, cut your buddy some slack (within reason).

Also, all of you late people…. if you didn’t already, think about what you’ve done! You should feel a little bad. Your tardiness affects the other person’s plans both before and after, it sends a bad message that your time is more important than theirs, can cause people to spend money and/or energy waiting for you, and is just plain irritating. Also, it’s your fault, so seriously, own up to it – not just to them, but to yourself.


[author’s note: I am biased in that I do not generally approve of tardiness.]

If you like this, you can link to it so that your friends can see what’s sometimes too hard to say.


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