I WAS ONCE late to a friend’s wedding. It was at once mortifying and infuriating because it wasn’t my fault. I am a punctual person. But on this occasion, I was catching a lift to the event with a friend, who said he got caught up watching the movie Hustle & Flow—great movie, but goddamn, bro!
Even more annoying to me, he was actually ready to go early and was apparently leaving the house when he started watching the movie and got sucked into the story. I started hitting him with frantic ‘Dude, where are you?’ texts and when he finally arrived to pick me up, was annoyed that he still thought we could make it across Sydney in peak-hour traffic in under 30 minutes.
Of course, we couldn’t. Other friends started sending us texts on the way asking where we were. We arrived as they were taking the group photo. I will never forget the cold glares we received from other guests as we sheepishly crept into the back of the photo. Still, we were lucky. Our friend and his bride were oblivious to our tardiness and we could have got away with not telling them we’d missed the ceremony—we told them a few months later.
Anyway, the point is my friend is what’s known as a time optimist, a generous phrase, in my opinion, coined by Michaela Thomas, a Swedish clinical psychologist—it’s called a “tidoptmist” in Sweden. “A tidoptimist is a person who underestimates how long something takes, and also overestimates how much time they have at their disposal,” says Thomas. “So they will often be late for appointments, or rush things at the last minute, and this can create stress for themselves and others.”
There are other reasons people are late. Sufferers of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may suffer what’s known as “time blindness”, a condition that has gained some traction on TikTok.
As someone who is neither optimistic nor blind about time, I don’t have a lot of time (haha) for sufferers, particularly when they make me late. My wife, who doesn’t suffer from ADHD but doesn’t wear a watch and is therefore often flying blind when it comes to time, is constantly asking me the time while we’re getting ready to go places and is constantly surprised by how little of it she has left to do God knows what, when I inform her.
Normally someone of even temperament, running late is one of the few things that causes me anxiety and frustration and I believe it is not because I’m organised or take particular pride in being punctual; it’s because I care what others think of me and don’t want them to think I don’t value their time. The thing is, I don’t seem to care much about others being late and keeping me waiting. Usually I will just continue staring at my phone (phones and texts have taken a lot of the anxiety out of social meet-ups) and when they do arrive in a flutter of apologies, I will shrug my shoulders in amicable magnanimity.
I wonder if this is normal. If I cared less about what others think, would I be less anxious about arriving on time and angrier about others’ tardiness. Would that be good for me in terms of the way I assert myself in the world? Is being late an alpha power play that I’m too meek to try? These are questions I don’t have the time (or much inclination) to get to the bottom of.
Having said that, I do reserve some contempt for serial time optimists. Surely you can only be optimistic about how long things take for so long before you start to learn your lesson? I had another friend who was always late, each time offering a convoluted, usually headscratching reason for their lateness. I remember one excuse about a malfunctioning washing machine that occurred just as she was leaving to meet us. Suddenly the machine became the most pressing priority in her life, so much so that she forgot she had left two poor souls waiting at a freezing bus-stop. This would never happen to me. I would leave the machine and deal with it later.
Another friend is a serial “running about 10 minutes late” text guy. I don’t believe he is a time optimist. I just think he thinks a plan to meet at 4.30 on a Saturday afternoon means you get ready at 4.20 and leave at 4.30, and arrive at 4.45, while I think it means you get ready at 4.00, leave at 4.10 and arrive at 4.20 and look at your phone until 4.45, when he finally arrives. You see, it’s tough being a punctual person when other people are running around on their own subjective clocks in their heads.
This means I can get agitated about the concept of arriving fashionably late or when there is an unspoken convention, say at a dinner party, of not arriving on time. Then I will focus on arriving at just the right amount of fashionably late time–the window between 20 and 40 minutes late is ‘on time’.
Having a child does take some of the pressure out of arriving on time as other parents are usually sympathetic to your plight. Similarly, I recall travelling in Egypt and learning to relax into ‘Egyptian time’ or Barbados where things ran on ‘island time’. Perhaps these places have the right attitude. As I recall I generally still got to where I was going and there was far less stress involved.
To wrap this up before I run out of time, I guess as someone who generally and habitually runs 10 minutes early, not due to overt time pessimism or acute time observance but just because I don’t want to be considered rude, I am not about to embrace time optimism or time blindness as excuses for lateness. But perhaps I will cut myself a break and just focus on arriving in the ballpark of the agreed time, and whether that’s 10 minutes early or 10 minutes late, so be it. The other person has a phone to occupy themselves after all, and maybe like me, doesn’t even care.
And, if it’s a meeting or an event, well, at least I know I can safely rely on there being enough time optimists around that I won’t be the last one there. I only wish I’d come to this realisation earlier; it’s about time.