170 - Timeliness

Greg Savage posted a characteristic Aussie message about being on time. He has no patience with people being late and feels there are no excuses. Having read what he wrote and the reaction to that post, I have a few things to share on the topic and I’ve put the original post at the foot of this piece.

There is an important distinction to make between occasional and habitual lateness. A part of the general problem is a fundamental failure to communicate clearly. If a meeting is to start on the hour, does that mean the time is given to the nearest minute or to the nearest convenient larger unit? I see this precision problem throughout the teaching of number and it is easily cured. Suppose the meeting is announced as being at 09:10? That then does not mean 09:30 and it probably doesn’t mean 09:15. Suppose it is to start at 09:07? Then clearly someone who arrives at 09:10 is already late. This is the use of implied precision and is, to my mind, the simplest way of indicating intent. At Shiplake I was annoyed for a while at arrangements for doing sport; rowing sessions ‘started’ on the hour and frequently failed to begin 20 minutes later. When this habit moved into the groups of runners I was taking, I changed the timing to an implied minute’s precision and the understanding was that someone two minutes late had missed the event — and those of us who turned up had already left1. This works well if the caller of time has the control (equivalent to moving the group location) and while there is no-one essential to the meeting.

I agree that habitual lateness is hard to excuse and in a professional situation is often intolerable. However, and as his respondents indicate, there is a problem with those whose time is not their own. I had this problem continually in Qingdao when I was a Principal; too many of the people who demanded time simply didn’t run on the same timetable as the school, or didn’t believe I actually did teaching, certainly wouldn’t let me do any preparation and I frequently finished meetings held in my own office by virtually pushing them out of the door. One result was that when people made appointments I had to explain that I was unable to commit with precision. This leaves me with some sympathy for new parents being late, with busy mums being late — but it still doesn’t excuse those who are chronically late, if that is not too much of a tautology.

I have problems with professionals such as doctor and dentist who run their calendars impossibly, but there is an argument that says that even if i value my time expensively, that of the medic is a scarcer commodity, so in effect I must plan for them to be late. Actually, I have issues with that too; I want to know whether the lateness is expected—what the game rules are, perhaps—so I can plan what to do.2 The medical business is a particular problem where one basically writes off huge chunks of time and is foolish not to take something to do (meaning something to read, mostly, though I’ve taken marking) that doesn’t require too much in the way of non-distraction.

Social lateness is an issue for society, if even only for the little bit(s) of society to which you belong. If it is socially acceptable or even expected that a ‘party at eight’ is translated as ‘turn up late evening not before eight’ then two things occur:

(i)   the hosts have a non-event from 20:00 until a crowd turns up, in which case the hosts themselves have surrendered their event to the vague crowd; this renders those guests not friends, I suspect, since the control of the event has been given away. That’s like making an invitation to be trodden upon.

(ii)  the hosts did not intend to be misunderstood then their guests risk missing a significant portion of the event (like the food). Hosts gain control by, for example, providing food on time and making the late folk understand, however gently, that the lateness was their choice. That doesn’t avoid the awkwardness of rearranging seating to cope with gaps and with late arrivals. I have had people tell me that if I say eight I obviously meant nine. Wrong, very: they clearly don’t live in my world and won’t be revisiting it.

I have a huge issue with the people who set their clocks and watches to show an incorrect time, such as running ten minutes fast. This at best implies an inability to do arithmetic (best, because it is an admission of a failing). It implies a recognition that there is a problem but only makes a small step toward a cure. What could possibly be the problem that would be solved by making the machinery tell lies? I assume that among the issues at heart here is an inability to plan. That meeting is at T0, so I need to be out of the house by T1, so out of bed by T2, (and so on). Some of us would allow for contingencies, some of us would always do that and some would never do that. I say this third group is often late, but that might depend just how ruthless they are once in action.

This is like the bedroom alarm business; if you have done some arithmetic that says you need to get up at T, then what is the snooze function for? I have heard an argument (with difficulty) that went something like this: “I really like that bit of sleep that you might call dozing and happens when the bed is all warm and I’m basically ‘not’ getting up. I like it so much that I let myself go through two (say) snooze cycles. Yes, it is self-indulgence.” And I recognise this on the occasion when an alarm has been left ‘on’ and is inappropriate today—the alarm says, perhaps, you could get up—and you choose to enjoy, in a very positive way, staying in bed a while longer. Longueur vs languor7.  But, perhaps if you’re sharing a bed, there’s an apology on the way for disturbing your partner with the alarm. Or in my case, simply no longer hearing that high pitched warble.

I think somewhere in this issue is a core of selfishness that says you’re the inferior so you can wait for me. This presupposes on the patience of the person who is on time. Indeed, it presupposes that the person on time accepts the supposedly inferior position. The person who is late (for an agreed appointment) runs the risk that the other party abandons the meeting (or rearranges their day); agrees (or not) to play dominance games.  So there’s a choice for the one who is on time – is this meeting worth the wait, or not? In being late, the second arriver has surrendered the initiative. Too often the early or on-time party accepts the implied obligation to wait; in so doing they accept that inferior position. Too often the late arrival fails to apologise in ways that make the next such event acceptable.4

Is this about respect for others? Well, it may be. It could be seen as disrespect to turn up late and as respect to be on time – but in some cultures, time is not important. English has a multitude of tenses with perhaps more than a dozen ways of indicating future intent. Other languages are simpler and merely indicate future intent or just ‘not now’. Those languages reflect a completely different attitude to time – and it may be respectful to recognise that.

Is this about trust? If you have an agreement (to meet at time T) then is it not a measure of your worth to deliver on such a promise? If you value your word then such things should be important, and you might even make sure that details are vague if you know you don’t have control of your time. We’ve made the business of meeting less definite in the way we use modern communication and far too many calls are made because one or both parties are unable to plan (or no longer plan because they have a mobile communicator). There are occasions where such vagueness makes sense, such as meeting unreliable public transport, or meeting in places one or both parties don’t know well. Some of this lack of thought is a consequence of changes in expectations of parenting and schooling, but most of it is simply a failure to think and a failure to communicate well.  A side issue here is to point out that good communication does not require beautiful diction, simply clarity of thought.

Perhaps our modern society provides a big enough element of uncertainty to all travel, even within a building, that all appointments are necessarily vague. Thus we ‘must’ always use the mobile in a markedly mindless way to indicate proximity to being able to hold a meeting. “I’ve reached the building”, “I’m on your floor”. Not very different from the WW11 message ‘Burma’5. Not good communication, and while it might make the late arrival feel they’re on the job, it guarantees that the early arrival has their time wasted. I wonder how professionals on the clock (like lawyers) account for these moments.

Thinking of the mindless mobile6 conversations, I am reminded of the occasions when using a two-way radio with cadets. Our standing instructions for the start of every new season and new users was that one person would do the talking on the radio and someone else would stand beside them and do the thinking. The demands of pushing a button to transmit and to say “You you me <message> over”8 was repeatedly shown to be too much for a novice to do AND make sense.      I see similarities with the use of phones when actually mobile; one can walk and talk but apparently not walk intelligently and talk intelligently. This is but one good reason (but entirely sufficient) why one should not use the phone while driving. Mind, listening to many over-loud conversations, one wonders if anyone can talk intelligently. I far prefer not to use the damned phone at all; there are quite enough problems with text and email communication.

Myself, I fall into that painful group that arrives at the stated time. The only period when I consistently failed was when my time was not my own to manage, and I felt that this merely confirmed that a manager is a servant, just another service department.

Which is perhaps the best lesson from that experience. And the one worth sharing.

DJS 20150526

top pic from Dreamstime.com

1    When running at Shiplake was published as starting at 14:00 there were often two of ten absent at 14:10. For rugby, unless kick-off was indicated, a 14:00 practice would usually have players turning up from 13:45 to 14:15. So 14:00 meant ‘in the top half of the dial’. I published running starts as different for different days, reflecting what I knew was going on at lunch-time, but all times given ending in a non-zero and not a five. Thus clearly the time was correct to the nearest minute and we all were happy to allow up to two minutes for error. After a short period of learning, we not only wasted very little time in assembling for sport, but also we all found ourselves much more efficient with the use of time. On one occasion we had a booking for a team photo; at five minutes to the published assembly moment there was no-one present and at five minutes after we had all gone to do other things, photograph done. Meanwhile, the rugby players lost an hour; yes, there were more of them, but (amazingly) only marginally so.

2    If all appointments are late, then are you penalised for turning up with a smaller margin? Suppose you ‘know’ the doctor runs 15 mins late after lunch, always. Does the resident practice dragon then apply a rule that requires everyone to turn up and wait a minimum of 15 minutes, irrespective of the lateness? If you turn up at 15:20 for a ’15:15’ appointment that won’t start until 15:30, are you ‘late’ enough to have lost your turn in the queue? Do different rules apply? Should a different system operate? I say it probably should. One of the features that applies to the health business is that the ‘patient’ is treated as an object. Even then, the system treats all the medics as having an infinite capacity for work and seems to often also apparently assume they are incompetent at organising themselves. An equivalent in teaching would be to have 100% timetables (where we usually teach 80% of a timetable, say 36/45 or 32/40 lessons per week)3

3 For many teachers, these targets include the extras such as Library duty. I was on an “80%” timetable when doing my PGCE in Plymouth, which was taken as 80% of the 100% full timetable, taking me down to 32 from the regular 34. When teaching Maths & IT at Shiplake I often had 45/45 periods a week plus games, which sounds horrid but wasn’t – my computing load included 10 (very small) classes held in parallel with other classes and I generally spent one lesson a week checking what the kids had done (the computer system did the ‘teaching’, presenting work to be absorbed and tasks to be done). This was efficient all round (for me and the kids). Questions came on a screen in the maths classroom. And this was the middle 80s; progress!

4    Communication failure again. If you know you have difficulties with time on that occasion because, for example, there are uncontrolled factors (e.g. transport issues), then at the time of making the appointment you should be indicating an element of doubt. Some people say this is what the mobile is for – communicating the delay. I disagree, because the appointment fixes a moment in time and the use of the mobile simply extends the down-time surrounding the essentials of the meeting. If you want to meet me for something significant and I’m busy then I expect to be busy both before and after our meeting. If I’m the host I may be able to move work around until you arrive, (and I won’t keep you waiting unless there’s a succession of meetings) but if we’re meeting so we’re both offsite then either we have agreed who is hosting (and therefore perhaps present first) or we are both going to be on time.

Some people use PAs / Secretaries to handle the calls. That simply expends their time on things that should, in my mind, not need communicating at all often. So I accept accidents, and unusual traffic delays, but not chronic lateness and not failure to plan sensibly. Or to put that another way, you can expect the circumstance to affect the meeting.

5    Returning servicemen sent the telegram ‘Burma’, an acronym for Be Upstairs & Ready, My Angel’. That’s not an indicator of an equal society, is it?

6    Intentional double meaning. On the mobile and moving at the same time.

7  languor, pleasurable tiredness or inactivity

   longueur,  a tedious passage of time.   These words have other meanings too.

8    “Base Three, Base Three, this is Alpha, Message, over”

    “Alpha, Three, send”

    “Three, Alpha, Have reached the summit Yes Tor, over”

    “Alpha, Three, I see you, no you aren’t, over”

    “Three, Alpha, wait one crunch, out”

Typical radio from TenTors days. A crunch was the length of time from putting a boiled sweet into the mouth to the moment when the teeth unwittingly crunched the candy, between two and five minutes, 200-500 metres (6kph, 10 mins / kilometre, easy calculation while walking and ignoring hills and slow ground). Base Three is rather terser than the rules call for; the first response should be “Alpha Alpha Three send over”. Habitually the first interchange begins “you, you, me” and subsequent messages start “you, me”. Since all others on the wavelength can hear, if more than one conversation is occurring, it is necessary to be clear who is talking to whom. Base Two would often call round teams A to E looking to hear of progress and not knowing whether teams were within range, so we could have:

“Echo, Echo, this is base Two; your location, over”   repeat repeat

“Nothing heard Echo. Break” 

“Delta, Delta, this is base Two; your location, over”   repeat repeat

“Nothing heard, Delta. Break”


Thus reaching a point where Two has failed to communicate with all groups from young Echo to older Alpha. Two doesn’t know if they’ve heard him, but he knows he hasn’t heard them and that, if they did hear him, they now know he can’t hear them. Typically, especially towards the end of an afternoon, this conversation followed:

“Two, Two; Three: over”

Three; Two: send, over”

Two; Three: Team locations as follows  <available detail, locations and intervals between groups, (sometimes merely predicted times of arrival at the tor nearest to Two)>  over

Three; Two: Understand <detail repeated, perhaps with comment> over

Two; Three: Correct. My location is <place now>. Expect to be <location, time> over.

Three, Two: Understood, out.

Except that we didn’t do the pauses implied by the punctuation at all, to general amusement: “332 over,

23 send over

32 Echo 15 minutes from Great Mis, Delta 10 minutes, Charlie 25 but going faster, those three from west. Bravo coming south but still other side of river, Alpha now about to catch them. Copy? Over

23 Understood. Out for now”

A handheld radio will work better if a line of sight to the recipient is available, hence the rule of thumb: ‘On failure of comms, gain height’.  Which is why on north Dartmoor, Three, who was the mobile pedestrian unit out on the moor, went over Yes Tor, the highest point, quite often. Famously, when suffering from poor battery performance, Three was reduced to squelch (little more than a click transmitted), while Two, in a mobile vehicular unit on the edge of the moor, would generally have dry equipment, more spare equipment, a huge aerial and a car battery to call upon in some circumstances – so he could hear better and send further. Two and Three occasionally demonstrated this wet weather (and bad battery care) incident in House Assemblies, to general amusement and as a lesson in surmounting communication difficulties. Principle applied: kids love it when teachers act a little silly; if you can squeeze some learning into those occasions too, they’re well-remembered, even if not completely understood at the time. What you might call slow learning for some, but successful because remembered and revisited voluntarily by the students.

Using * for the squelch, click sound of a dying battery:

332 over

23 batt..

332 message broken, over


32, understand battery issues, over


32 understand three clicks for yes, 2 for no, over


32, Do you have any teams in sight, over

*** *

32 understand one team in sight. Assume you heard that I can’t raise any team, so you’re nearest to me or line of sight right now, over


32 are you aware where all teams are, approximately? over

*** **

32 understand you know whereabouts of some teams. Guess Alpha and Bravo unknowns, over?

*** **        * ***   ** **    ******** ***

32 alpha known, Bravo not known, others known, yes? over

*** ***

and so on....  It was typical that Three was on a high point (or able to get to one relatively quickly) and that Three, by being nearer everyone, had a good idea where the teams were, and possibly more likely to have radio contact, if radios were behaving well enough. Actually seeing a team was often difficult, moorland weather being what it is.Two, on the outside and in the support vehicle, needed to know he was in the ‘right’ next place, what progress was and predictions of the next immediate targets, particularly if a group was having a problem and would be very much slower than expected, or needing to drop someone from their team. In the wet, this was far more of a problem, until such time as we replaced the radios with very much better equipment. It was still surprisingly easy for a team to be unaware that they were missing radio chatter (turned it off, turned it too low, not replaced the battery). Fortunately staff cover was sufficiently good that we could keep most teams in sight most of the day and it was usually in the later part of the day when the staff had largely had enough and the remaining ground to cover was fairly well-known and predictable (safe would be a good term), then the only issue remaining was where they were and when they would reach, particularly, the Princetown road. Three tended to walk the furthest of the staff (idiot masochist) and further than all teams but Alpha, who would typically be carrying more and going fast (but slower than Three). Sometimes Three covered the most of all concerned, but not often. A long day for the teams might be 14 hours; Three’s walk rarely took more than eleven.

Initial prompt from http://vitamintalent.com/vitabites/no-you-are-not-running-late-you-are-rude-and-selfish, quoted here:

This post may offend some readers. But only because it’s going to cut close to the bone for many.

And I don’t care if I sound old-fashioned, because actually it’s nothing to do with ‘fashion’ or ‘generation’. It’s got everything to do with basic good manners and respect for other people.

So here goes… How did it get to be “OK” for people to be late for everything?

Because as far as I am concerned, it’s not OK.

In recent years it seems that a meeting set to start at 9 am, for some people means in the general vicinity of any time which starts with the numeral ‘9’. Like 9.30 for example.

People drift in at 9.10 or 9.20, or even later. And they smile warmly at the waiting group, as they unwrap their bacon sandwich, apparently totally unconcerned that others have been there since five to nine, prepared and ready to start.

10 people kept waiting in a meeting for 20 minutes, while some selfish pratt who idles his way via the coffee shop, is actually 20 minutes times 10, which is 200 minutes wasted – while you keep us waiting because you did not catch the earlier bus. That is over 3 hours wasted. By you! How much has that cost the business? Shall I send you an invoice?

And an arrangement to meet someone for a business meeting at a coffee shop at 3 pm, more often than not means at 3.10 you get a text saying ‘I am five minutes away’ which inevitably means 10 minutes, and so you wait for 15 or 20 minutes, kicking your heels in frustration.

And often these ‘latecomers’ are people who have requested the meeting in the first place, are asking for your help, or are selling something. Fat chance, mate!

And it’s not only business.

Why do people, invited for a dinner party at 7.30, think its cool to arrive at 8.30? It’s rude. It’s inconsiderate. And it’s selfish, as I witnessed in a coffee shop near my home one weekend. Three “ladies who lunch” (a species not confined to, but heavily represented on, the lower North Shore of Sydney) were chatting loudly at the table next to me. One inquired what time the ‘drinks do’ was that night. The reply for all the world to hear was ‘Oh 7.30, but we won’t get there till 9 because by then it will have warmed up and all the interesting people will have arrived’. Nice. Imagine if everyone took that view. Cocktail parties would start at 3 am eventually.

Or a dinner at a restaurant where I was meeting two other couples. My wife was away, so I was flying solo. I arrived at two minutes to eight for an eight o’clock booking. At 8.20, I was into my second glass of Pinot and at half-past I got a text saying ‘on the way’. We finally were all seated at 8.45. There were not even attempted excuses from either of the two couples, who seemed oblivious to the fact I might actually have got there at the agreed time. Meanwhile I had put a huge dent in the bottle of Pinot, and was ready to go home.

And it is not that we lead ‘busy lives’. That’s a given, we all do, and it’s a cop out to use that as an excuse. It’s simply that some people no longer even pretend that they think your time is as important as theirs. And technology makes it worse. It seems texting or emailing that you are late somehow means you are no longer late.


You are rude. And inconsiderate.

And I act on it, too. My dentist kept me waiting 50 minutes not long ago. She has done it for years and years. But enough! I walked out, past a literally open-mouthed receptionist who had never seen a patient act on their frustration, only to get a frantic call from the dentist herself as I got into my car.

Sure she was “busy”, another patient took longer than she expected, blah blah.

But hold on, I am busy too! I would not keep her waiting 45 minutes if she came to see me as a candidate. And yet I am HER customer. I told her I have been coming to you for 15 years but don’t take me for granted. See fewer patients in a day if you have to, but see me on time or close to it. She has never kept me waiting again.

Me? Am I ever late? Sure, sometimes. That’s inevitable even with the best intentions. But I never plan to be late. I never ‘let time slide’ because my stuff is more important than yours.

I am not talking about the odd occasion of lateness. I am talking about people who are routinely late. In fact, never on time. You know who I am talking about!

And certainly I consider serial lateness a character flaw which I take into account when working out who to promote, who to hire and who to count amongst my real friends.

It’s that important.


© David Scoins 2017