Is unpunctuality a moral failing?

Imgresby Emrys Westacott

We all know people who are routinely late. We may even be one of them. These people aren't necessarily late for everything. They usually manage to catch their trains or planes, get to a concert before it begins, and make it to their job interviews on time. But if it's a matter of rendezvousing for coffee, not holding up dinner, or being packed for a trip by the prearranged departure time, they are systematically hopeless.

Surprisingly, English doesn't seem to have a noun for this kind of person akin to words like “slob” or “scruff” or “lazybones.” The term “latecomer” won't do since it denotes one who is late for a specific event, not one who regularly keeps other waiting. So for the sake of convenience, let's label these people “unpunctuals.”

On several occasions I have heard amusing little speeches given about such individuals, at birthday parties, anniversaries, and graduation celebrations. The spirit is always the same: the subject of the toast/roast is a lovely person in many, many ways but he/she has a unique (although, in truth, it obviously isn't unique) sense of time. A familiar consequence of this has been that the unpunctual's nearest and dearest have spent a goodly proportion of their earthly existence hanging around wondering when the unpunctual will show up/be ready/finish a task etc..

This charitableness toward the unpunctual is interesting. We are less ready to laugh at other little failings which inconvenience us. Imagine a similar speech about someone who regularly borrows money and doesn't pay it back. Or who routinely fails to pick up their share of the tab at a restaurant. Or who insists on inflicting loud music on us when we are trying to concentrate or are suffering from a migraine. In such cases, the humour would be more barbed, the implicit criticism more pointed.

Yet unpunctuality is arguably similar to these other little vices in the way that unpunctuals blithely impose themselves on others, or at least seem indifferent to the concerns of those they keep waiting. Just as all untidiness is basically laziness, so all avoidable unpunctuality is basically selfishness, involving the sacrifice of another's interests to one's own. Or if not positively selfish, it is at least disrespectful. Time may not be money, but it is self-evidently valuable to the person whose time it is. Failing to value other people's time could reasonably be likened to not respecting their property.

The connection between respect and punctuality emerges very clearly in certain contexts. Kings can be late, but commoners are expected to show up at the palace on time. The same asymmetry regarding expectations and acceptable behavior can be found in many workplaces, schools, and social institutions. There is a rationale for it, of course: the Grand Pooh Bah is supposedly much busier than the lower life form and therefore has a harder time keeping scheduled appointments. But really, it's all about status. The bureaucrat who keeps some underling or member of the public waiting will be scrupulously on time for meetings with his superiors. In general, being profligate with someone else's time expresses higher status––or, in the case of teenagers holding up their parents, independence. Dr

Such is the case for the prosecution, for seeing unpunctuality as a failing that deserves criticism rather than loving forbearance. So the question arises: why are we indulgent toward unpunctuals? How come we often view their willingness to keep us waiting as endearing rather than infuriating?

Several answers suggest themselves. The unpunctuals' obliviousness to temporal demands is associated with an otherworldly unconcern for sordid practicalities. They are dreamers. Their intense interest in their immediate surrounding makes them distractible. They live in the present and in this respect provide a useful corrective to the rest of us who are excessively goal-directed and future-oriented. They are the ones who have not lost that capacity we so love to see in children of total immersion in whatever activity happens to occupy them at the present moment.

This perspective can be extended from a mere explanation of why we tolerate unpunctuality to a positive defense of its value in a culture excessively devoted to the great gods Efficiency and Productivity. As is well known, the importance attached to punctuality varies greatly among cultures. In countries like Japan, Germany, or the United States, the normal expectation is that people will do what they said they'd do (e.g. meet for dinner) fairly close to the prearranged time. In many African and Latin American countries, expectations are much more easygoing. Turning up an hour or two later than the stipulated time causes little inconvenience or offence, both because this is more or less expected, and because the waiting time is not measured in terms of lost potential achievements.

So should we view unpunctuality as a moral failing? An easy answer would be to just embrace cultural relativism. Where it's expected, people should respect the expectation; where it's optional, it seems unfair to criticize people for not embracing an alien norm.

But that is perhaps too easy. For as indicated above, there are reasons to question the clock-watching obsession with using time efficiently that is characteristic of modernity. Is it not, after all, a trickle-down effect of industrial capitalism's relentless drive to enhance productivity? Yet on the other hand there are also grounds for criticizing the nonchalant attitude toward time and punctuality to be found elsewhere. Some have even argued that it is one of the reasons why many countries remain underdeveloped. Thinking along these lines, in 2007 the government of Ivory Coast ran a campaign against unpunctuality, with the slogan “African time is killing Africa–let's fight it.”

My present position on this thorny matter is rather awkward. I agree in theory with those who argue that our dearly beloved unpunctuals offer useful and even endearing reminders that we moderns place too high a value on efficiency. Moreover, there is no good reason to view time spent waiting for someone as time wasted. After all, we can always put it to good use. We might, for instance, use it to think! In practice, however, I am less charitable. I'm the guy who sits in the car on the driveway beeping impatiently while family members fail to emerge from the house. Which I suppose make me a hypocrite. But then compared to unpunctuality, hypocrisy is perhaps not a very serious moral failing. After all, it doesn't usually inconvenience anybody.