• August 28, 2015

Sorry I'm Late

First Person Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

This past summer, I taught two graduate classes at a German university. I had assumed that the German reputation for punctuality would carry over to the classroom. But on the first day of class, every student in my 6 p.m. class was late. Same on the second day, and the third.

I was a bit miffed, and announced to the class on the third day that I would, from then on, delay starting until 6:10 p.m., since apparently they had trouble getting to class on time. A kid in the front row raised his hand, and said, "So, you mean we'll start at 6:25?"

By then, I was angry. If I had meant 6:25 p.m., I would have said it. The kids saw that I was confused, and explained: The German system of time relies on the "academic quarter hour," or das akademische Viertel.

I was sure they were pulling my leg, but they were completely serious. Everyone assumes that everyone else will be late, and that professors will be the latest of all. The actual time listed in the schedule is intentionally incorrect. Unless the listed time has the suffix "s.t." (sine tempore or without extra time), then the actual start is 15 minutes after the stated time, or "c.t." (cum tempore, with extra time). And c.t. is the default: If there is no suffix, then a 6 p.m. class starts at 6:15 p.m.

Leave it to the Germans to figure out how to be late on time.

Here in the States, we don't have a nice tidy rule like that. And yet most meetings, at every level, still start late.


Look, most of us don't like waiting. In fact, we hate it when someone else is late. But most of us also avoid being early; we seem happy to force others to wait around for us. All of that time spent waiting around has given me a chance to pick out some patterns. Here are four. I predict as soon as you read my four rules of lateness, you will recognize the behavior of several of your colleagues, and maybe yourself.

The Platonic traveler. Plato's conception of being was dualistic: There is an imperfect world of things around us, and a higher-order world of pure mind, or forms. Chronically late people live in the imperfect world, but believe they can travel inside their own minds. If their house is 11 minutes away from the campus, without traffic or stoplights, then they assume that they can actually travel from their home to the meeting room in 11 minutes. Of course, there are school buses, problems with parking, garbage trucks blocking the alley, and so on.

So when the repeat offender finally arrives, 10 minutes late, the rest of the folks at the meeting will be treated to a breathless summary of the unique event that made the person late this time. And it's true: Who knew there would be a school field trip loading up in the parking lot?

The point is that that's not the point. If a (different) unique event repeatedly prevents you from arriving on time, then you need to leave earlier. You have to allow for the average length of the trip, not the trip in the world of Platonic forms.

Just record your arrival times at meetings for a couple of weeks. If you are always late, you are a Platonic traveler. In the real world, though, you are a pain in the neck.

The paradox of the busy. The busier you are, the more likely you will be on time. Busy people manage their time well because it is valuable. They develop rules to avoid frittering away the day. Competent people adjust; ambitious people improve their skills. If you can get better at your job (and time management is a big part of most jobs), then you will be given more responsibility.

Incompetent people believe they are busy, but they are just inefficient. Colleagues who are always late are revealing signs of a larger incompetence in many other, less visible, parts of their lives.

Generally, we measure and manage any resource more carefully as it becomes valuable. We measure lettuce by the head, and store it in big bins. We measure diamonds by carats (that's .0071 ounces), and display them in glass cases on black velvet. Well, "busy" means time is valuable. So rational busy people should measure time more accurately, and manage it more efficiently. Hence, competent busy people are rarely late.

Closeness hurts. For this group of latecomers, the closer their office is to the room, the later they arrive at the meeting. If someone is coming from another city, the meeting's importance is somehow mentally elevated. Even if they just have to walk to another building, they tend to be on time.

But if the session is just down the hall, they wait until the last minute, maybe dial up one more co-author, grade one more paper. Then when Ms. Close does show up, five minutes late, she says, "Oh, sorry I'm late. I was just making a phone call."

And that excuses being late … how?

The first will be last. Mr. First shows up, parks his folders, sees the room is empty, and heads for the coffeepot. Because he is two minutes early, he chats up the staff. He finally arrives 10 minutes late, but his papers and BlackBerry sit there in mute proxy, a talisman of timeliness.

I have seen meetings turn into Molière set pieces, almost but never quite getting started, for 20 minutes or more. Folks take turns, saying, "Oh, Smith's not here. I'm going to get a soda. Anyone want cookies?" Smith comes back, but by that time Mbutu has left to retrieve a book. "We can't start without Mbutu; I'll just be gone a minute." Grrrrrrrr.

Those four types are the reason we always start late. The strange thing is that all meetings start late, even though we would all prefer punctuality. So why don't we fix the problem? For the same reason that we can't fix the problem of too much noise in restaurants: Each of us could speak more quietly in a restaurant, and the noise level would fall drastically. But I value conversation at my table more than at the next table, and so I speak loudly enough to be heard over the din, even though I may get dirty looks.

In the same way, people who are chronically late to meetings pay a small reputational cost. But they hate waiting more than they value a reputation for being considerate of others.

There are obvious remedies, but they involve beheading late people in the hallway with a broadsword. (An ax doesn't appear to work, at least in my experience as a department chair. Other department chairs have reported some success with Tasers, but I'm not convinced.) Organizations that take the problem seriously can solve it, of course, through a combination of shaming and actual fines. The broadsword might be tamed down to this: Repeat offenders could find themselves chairing a committee on letterhead compliance, or on a library-card color scheme.

Even without such sanctions, however, there are limits to how late most people are willing to be. Five or seven minutes late, and most of us aren't really ashamed. But arriving 20 minutes late is embarrassing. And to keep others waiting for half an hour violates a pretty serious, if unspoken, social norm.

We tend toward lateness because each of us hates waiting more than we feel bad about making others wait. But manners and conventions are precisely about solving that sort of problem. So let's work together. To paraphrase Erich Segal: Being on time means never having to say you're sorry.

Michael C. Munger is chair of political science at Duke University, a position he has occupied since 2000. He has presided over scores, and has suffered through hundreds, of meetings in that time. And at almost every one of those meetings, someone has come in and said, "Oh, sorry I'm late. ..."


1. ksledge - November 16, 2009 at 08:42 am

Unless it's a chronic late person that I'm meeting, I generally hate making people wait more than I hate waiting for people. So I show up on time and bring my laptop or something to read while I wait. So actually, the other situation in which I'd rather be late than wait is
when I have to wait in the hallway behind a locked door because then I often can't work while I wait.

2. mbelvadi - November 16, 2009 at 08:49 am

You're forgetting one category - the person who is late because they're constantly being booked for back-to-back appointments and do not have control over their own schedules - their bosses do, or other people chairing committees they're on.

3. corbinsmyth - November 16, 2009 at 09:20 am

I have spent a lifetime feeling like I was the only person on time. But folks, the early bird does get the worm. I quite often have used my early arrival times to chat up department secretaries, making it easier to connect with faculty and department heads for future endeavors. I get my pick of the cream-filled donuts instead of the plain cake ones, the opportunity to read the meeting's agenda and handouts before everyone else (therefore looking and sounding smarter and better prepared), and use the time to conduct quick business with the others who trickle in a few minutes early. But the key for me now is rather simple...I became the boss. Everyone knows I am relentless about starting on time, and if nothing else we are punctual on almost everything out of fear of being scorned.

4. referee101 - November 16, 2009 at 10:27 am

When I was CEO of a non-profit I used several practices that I learned from more experienced leaders. Those included:

No excuses. We don't want to hear 'em. When the late arrival entered, the protocol was to take one's seat quietly and without comment.

I didn't comment (I was usually chairing the meeting) or call out the person who was late with the time-honored, "Now that we're all here" or acknowledge the late arrival in any way. Why waste more time calling attention to the tardy person?

Start on time. End on time or early. Don't wait on people who aren't there. I used a simple formula--if we had 10 people at a meeting and # 11 was five minutes late and we waited to begin, we just wasted 50 minutes of staff time. I wasn't going to do that.

I also employed the "Lock the door" practice with good results. If a meeting started at 10 a.m., we locked the door or doors at 10:01 a.m., and that was that. A few random rattles of the door knob might occur but it sent the message. When a long-time employee complained to me that he felt like a child standing there attempting to gain entry, I said, "Children are entitled to be late"

5. embeddedmba - November 16, 2009 at 11:28 am

das akademische Viertel=brilliant. Leave it to the Germans!

6. ridicula - November 16, 2009 at 11:31 am

Mr Munger and referee101--who died and made you the gods of punctuality? When you obsess over and enrage yourselves over such things, you create an ugly work environment.
I suppose you both live in perfect worlds where nothing ever transpires to make you late, that you've had all bodily orifices sealed, have no family, no material reality to deal with whatsoever. You've never had a pimple or cut yourself shaving. You never speak to strangers. In fact, you must live in a space-time loophole from which you magically emerge whenever you have an appointment, spending the rest of your time in a state of suspended animation.

7. _perplexed_ - November 16, 2009 at 12:10 pm

hope I'm never on a committee with ridicula...

8. ridicula - November 16, 2009 at 12:34 pm

as I, in turn, hope I'm never on a committee

9. superdude - November 16, 2009 at 12:40 pm


No, an ugly work environment is caused by selfish people and one key sign of selfishness is being late. Late people have no concept of the value of everyone else's time and are by definition not team players.

As Head, I have strong expectations regarding punctuality. If I schedule a meeting for 3pm, it STARTS at 3pm, which means you need to have your butt in a chair BEFORE 3pm. I refuse to have a committee held hostage to someone who is late.

10. blackbart - November 16, 2009 at 01:51 pm

Maybe if we had fewer meetings, and matters of consequence that couldn't be handled by email took place at those meetings, faculty would give them higher priority. In my experience as a faculty member at three different schools, only about one meeting in five truly required my presence or needed to take place at all.

11. 11232247 - November 16, 2009 at 02:01 pm

"80% of success in life is just showing up."
Woody Allen

One should learn to never accommodate anyone who cares less about other people's time than they do their own. Gratifyingly, life does indeed find ways to penalize those who seem to think their own time is far more valuable than their colleagues, family members, and friends.

12. beverly_lucas - November 16, 2009 at 02:41 pm

I just loved this!

13. mrmars - November 16, 2009 at 03:42 pm

There seem to be two diametrically opposite personality types which become obvious when this subject is discussed; those, like the author and some of the commenters above who are convinced that tardiness is the ultimate insult to ones' coworkers (students, etc.) and the root of all evil. And those who feel this is just another excuse for the "uptight" types to express righteous indignation (a time-waster that they seem to enjoy -if not depend on - none the less).

It takes both types to make the world go around (which it will whether we do things strictly on time or not). Certainly a habitually late colleague is an annoyance, but to equate such behavior with some sort of basic incompetence is IMHO a bit of a stretch. Hitler made the trains run on time (so I've heard) and yet not many would point to his punctuality as grounds for judging him "competent" in any sort of positive sense. Creative types are often a bit "scattered" and unorganized in behavior (i.e. late), yet the world would be a far worse off place without their contributions. If I had to chose between a world where everyone was scrupulously punctual and the one we've got, I think I'd opt for the latter, hands down.

14. charliemarlow - November 16, 2009 at 03:43 pm

I am delighted to see an overwhelmingly hostile attitude to people who habitually keep others waiting. It is a clear sign of the lack of respect of for others: Me-first, even if last.

15. superdude - November 16, 2009 at 03:49 pm

Blackbart, unfortunately that's not true. In my various leadership capacities over the last couple of years, I've drastically cut down on the number of meetings and their length. Yet people still arrive late.

Chronically late people aren't reacting to the subject matter or perceived utility of the meetings. They're simply selfish jerks who don't care they they're wasting everyone's time.

16. superdude - November 16, 2009 at 03:56 pm


That's not the first time I've seen the comment that "creative types are often a bit scattered". That's the lamest excuse, one that doesn't even make Michael's list, because it's so ridiculous.

These people aren't "scattered", they're arrogant and self-centered, or just too lazy to actually keep a schedule. Plenty of creative people are punctual.

Also, per Godwin's Law, you lose the argument by default anyway. ;-)

17. casachs - November 16, 2009 at 04:05 pm

This is an interesting read that with anecdotal observations leading to generalizations. Otherwise, it ignores the fact that different personality types tend to view time differently (ref: MBTI) and that most workplaces/organizations manage time around a single perspective of time. If we were sensible, we'd take the German and build-in such time into schedules... or, at the very least, not schedule meetings back-to-back that did not account for travel time already (e.g., set-up our organizational calendaring systems to add a 15 minute buffer automatically between meetings, no matter what).

Personally, I'm either late or early to meetings. This is because, unlike a machine with engineered and monitored limits of variance, I'm human... and I differ from my co-workers in biology, personality type, work-ethic, family constraints, health constraints, etc. Funny thing... in organizations, we tend to focus on diversity as a racial thing, forgetting the other dimensions of diversity... like personality types and perceptions of time...

18. mrmars - November 16, 2009 at 04:39 pm


Punctuality only matters if a society's functioning depends upon it, which begs the question should it (at least to the extent that it does here in the US)? If your sole measure of "functioning" is productivity per unit time, then I guess it is supremely important. If you think that we often sacrifice too much on the alter of "productivity," then my time (at work at least), and yours, don't matter as much as we might want to believe. I'm sure that this view can be interpreted as naive, but I tend to think that those who feel that their time is supremely valuable are a better fit for the term "arrogant."

The outcome of most meetings (in academia at any rate) rarely seems to justify the time spent; something not worth doing isn't worth doing well, nor starting strictly "on time." As the saying goes, very few people who are on their death-bed opine that they wish they would have spent more time in at the office (much less regret not being there "on time" I suspect).

I'd like to continue this discussion, but I'd risk being late - for dinner! One has to have priorities. ;-)

19. thirtyeyes - November 16, 2009 at 05:21 pm

I see a lot of people who consider the meeting time as the time they will actually consider leaving their office and so are always late. However, I can't agree with the incompetent statement.

20. keystonegal - November 16, 2009 at 06:40 pm

wow ... this is an interesting topic that is void of an important predictor of lateness ... culture.

Generally speaking, in collectivistic cultures, people value the human person in front of them more than the one that they are going to ... time takes on a different value depending on the culture from which you come.

It was my goal for this academic year to be on time ... so far (expect for the time I wasn't told about the change of a meeting location) I have only been late once. Adjusting one's schedule can be done regardless of the culture from which you come. Such change requires a few things. (1) You have to care to be on time. (2) You have to believe you can be on time, and (3) you have to make a conscious effort to implement practices that assures your success.

21. occidentalir - November 16, 2009 at 06:47 pm

"If you think that we often sacrifice too much on the alter of 'productivity'"

Punnctuality is not simply a workplace characteristic, it affects our social lives as well. Have you ever tried to go to a movie with a friend who is chronically late?

There are many social gatherings where start times can be fuzzy, and people can arrive fashionably late, because the early arrivers will presumably be happy to sit and chat, because that's the main purpose of the social gathering in the first place. But there are other social events where punctuality does matter. Even backpacking in the wilderness, the late-riser slows everyone else down.

22. cleverclogs - November 16, 2009 at 07:12 pm

re: late creative types
This is hogwash. In the theater where creative types abound, punctuality is so revered that stage managers note it on show reports, and lateness, a diva-ish behavior, is roundly shunned. Indeed, everyone is expected to be *ready to go* at the start of rehearsal. So that means, if a person needs time to get settled, stretch out, etc., that person will arrive early. This is because other people are counting on that person and it's a basic sign of respect for the each other and the work they are trying to do together.

I think the objection is to chronic lateness, no? Everyone has an occassional late day, but if it's constant, it's a problem. Now my psychologist friends, naturally, say chronic lateness is a symptom of other issues: the need to create excitement, or latent anxiety (not wanting to do the thing you've agreed to do), or a way of resisting authority. As much as I'd like to have sympathy for people dealing with the above issues, I've got problems of my own and I manage not to screw up everyone else's day.

I'm actually OK with people being chronically late to departmental and committee meetings, as long as they understand that they forfeit the right to know what's going on or have any real say in the proceedings. It never ceases to amaze me that the chronically late are the first people to complain about how nothing gets accomplished in the meeting without realizing that this is because so much time is devoted to getting them caught up on what is happening.

23. v8573254 - November 16, 2009 at 07:25 pm

Hmmmm. No one mentions the aspect of "power." In my experience, administrators are almost always late, and if you arrive late, they are even later.
I guess any analysis that has "power" as an element is probably out of date. As I am when I arrive on time, my folder neatly in front of me w/pen. Ugh. Who wants to be in a meeting with me?

24. momprof - November 16, 2009 at 07:41 pm

I winced at description #1. Ouch. Description #2 raised my eyebrows--so anyone who is chronically busy and late is just plain incompetent? I am chronically busy and late. I am actually very good at my job; but maybe the issue lies in how I, and others, define my job. Certainly from this (fun and interesting) article plus many of the comments on it, I get the impression that things like face time with students and revising lesson plans are considered less central than arriving at meetings punctually. Though I am on some committees, meetings are not central to my experience of the academy. Classes are, and I am indeed chronically late to those, which is admittedly a problem. Maybe I just need to move to Germany. But keystonegal's point makes sense to me: it's often about valuing the person you're with over the person who is waiting for you elsewhere.

There is another category, I think: it's people who don't feel late until other people know they are late. (A cognitive problem--possibly some kind of malfunction in that pre-frontal lobe we've been hearing so much about?) In other words, if you know the meeting location is 10 minutes away, you might be as much as 10 minutes late because the real moral pressure doesn't start till the meeting starts and you can envision your empty chair in real time.

25. lovelearning - November 16, 2009 at 07:43 pm

"Punctuality only matters if a society's functioning depends upon it, which begs the question should it (at least to the extent that it does here in the US)?"

Well said. Concepts of timeliness definitely varies by culture. Measuring time exactly by minutes is certainly a cultural characteristic. There are many cultures that function excellently without this feature.

26. astownsend - November 17, 2009 at 12:19 am

Lock the door one minute early to establish the "on time is late" concept. Only hold meetings that deal with issues that cannot be handled by memo. End one minute early. Always have refreshments. Stick to the agenda that is published in advance. For a more focused meeting, remove chairs from the room.

27. isugeezer - November 17, 2009 at 09:45 am

I second astownsend's suggestions.* Too many meetings are scheduled with no other purpose than to exercise administrative prerogative. A meeting's purpose should be savagely evaluated. Eliminate the ubiquitous "Let's go around the table and tell others what we've been doing lately" format and go directly to "Here's the problem we need to solve."

*Except for "Always have refreshments." I'm not an infant; unless the meeting is unusually long, I can eat and drink elsewhere.

28. laoshi - November 17, 2009 at 10:19 am

"The strange thing is that all meetings start late, even though we would all prefer punctuality. So why don't we fix the problem?"

This may be a problem from a monochronic cultural perspective. How is this a problem for people in polychronic societies?

Meetings are only excuses for not working, anyway.

29. sici3302 - November 17, 2009 at 10:44 am

A friend of mine likes to say, as he's rushing behind schedule for a meeting, "I'm not late till I get there."

30. annon107 - November 17, 2009 at 11:37 am

My advisor was always late - like 2-3 hours late. It was so bad it was a joke (not funny, sigh).

Being late can be passive agressive behavior, can make a statement that my time is more valuable than your time (my advisor and some other faculty, administrators and doctors I know)...

Lots of reasons out there in addition to the ones mentioned.

31. sici3302 - November 17, 2009 at 11:45 am

I agree that it can be a passive-agressive thing, but more likely making the statement "I don't want to be at this ^$&%& meeting."

32. superdude - November 17, 2009 at 12:06 pm


Perhaps. But what an immature way to express one's displeasure with having the meeting!

Not only do I not want people like that at my meeting (arriving late, of course), I don't want people like that working in my department!

33. purpleem - November 17, 2009 at 12:56 pm

To reiterate, mrmars, what you write about creative people is ridiculous, but the charge that creative people are self-centered and arrogant are just as preposterous.

I am a creative person; my job in academia requires that I produce many works of art on my own and with the students throughout the year.

I am ALWAYS on time if not early. I don't tolerate tardiness from the students either, as our time is valuable. I am tired of waiting for people who arrive late to meetings, as it is disrespectful to everyone there.

Let's try not to make blanket statements about issues we don't know enough about. I ask that students do that; I'd hope that their professors could do the same.

34. advisoryboard - November 17, 2009 at 02:20 pm

Here's how my International Trade professor handled this issue--a solution that was simple, direct, and effective.

Subject: Lateness for Trade

Dear Students,

I noticed on Friday that many students arrived late for class, still filing into the room after 2:00PM. This is extremely disruptive. Those who are late are causing a negative externality. Please arrive so that we can start at 2:00PM, sharp. Otherwise, I ask you to stay away completely, internalizing the negative externality. If my moral suasion shows no results, I will not hesitate to have the doors locked at 2:00PM.

Also, a few students filed out before 4:00PM. Such students, too, I would ask to stay away.

I am very pleased that the vast bulk of the class seems attentive and engaged.

Thank you,


35. higherandhigher - November 17, 2009 at 02:25 pm

"das akademische Viertel" is not a matter of being systematically late; it's simply a scheduling custom (one with a long-standing tradition at many German universities). At German universities with the c.t./s.t. tradition/practice, classes generally end at the top of the hour and begin fifteen minutes after the hour. This is not really much different than scheduling classes at US universities with 10 or 15 minutes in between standard periods. The implied start time when just seeing the hour listed or seeing a c.t. appended to the hour may be confusing at first, but once learned it's not complicated, and it is by no means an endorsement of being late.

36. mwlusk - November 17, 2009 at 04:53 pm

It is really quite helpful to come to meetings on time and to use the time that would otherwise be wasted waiting on others by checking on your university e-mail account, grading tests, or reading a book that you are working your way through. You are the master of your schedule regardless of the inconsistencies of others.

37. referee101 - November 17, 2009 at 05:11 pm

Responding to Ridicula: Yikes! That is what I get for not checking the comments for a day...although that does not, I trust, make me late. ;-) No, I am not perfect...but as many others have noted, being on time is not only helpful to getting our business done--it also is a gesture of respect to all others who must attend a meeting. It usually falls to the leader to establish the tone or culture in an organization or group. I was the leader and therefore chose to set that tone.

If someone could not be at the meeting, she or he would let us know ahead of time, and that was also a gesture of respect. Did it work? Yes, nearly all the time. Staff members repeatedly said, "Thank you for making our meetings efficient (we didn't meet "Just because" nor did we have regular staff meetings "Just because") " Once the tone was set, we had a sense of get in/get 'er done/get out. Morale improved because folks felt that their time was being used judiciously.

38. seejay - November 17, 2009 at 08:05 pm

It is sad to see an American teaching at a German university so ignorant of long-standing German academic custom and policy. ["Long-standing" means since Latin was the customary academic language of learned discourse.] University lecture times, unless otherwise specified by the letters s.t., are c.t. Prof. Munger's students knew that and were perfectly correct in their behavior.

If Americans persist in carrying around their cultural expectations, blithely unaware of or unconcerned with their cultural surroundings, we are an affront to the persons we interact with, especially when WE are the foreigners.

It should be noted that in social behavior punctuality is quite strictly adhered to in Germany. Unlike so many places here, where an invitation to dinner at 8 pm means "oh, 8:00 8:15 8:30 or so", in Germany an invitation to dinner at 8 pm means 8 pm SHARP.

39. mcmunger - November 17, 2009 at 09:19 pm

seejay: You are right, of course. The conventions of time are local, and the students were simply kind enough to explain it to me.

But I think you are perhaps being a bit harsh. I was invited to Germany by D.A.A.D. to teach German grad students about the U.S. And I accepted in part so that I could learn more about Germany.

And now anyone who has read this article will know and understand the German custom regarding starting times at universities. So I'm not sure it is fair to complain of my ignorance of German custom, when I spent four months trying to learn about just those customs.

Nonetheless, the fact is that the students really did ALSO explain to me that the origin of the academic quarter hour was a concern that professors were so confused that they would have trouble finding the correct room, and would be late. Maybe because they were too busy getting angry about imagined slights based on what they read in the CHRONICLE.

40. seejay - November 17, 2009 at 10:08 pm

mcmunger: When you say "By then, I was angry. If I had meant 6:25 p.m., I would have said it." I felt you were the one being a bit too harsh, and I was frankly appalled at the number of comments by colleagues who were eager to be even harsher riding their high horse of (culturally myopic) punctuality. I am delighted you learned more about German academic traditions of long standing and thank you for helping make others aware how German customs differ from our own, but remain distressed at the tone in the article and most especially by the reactions it engendered.

41. pantani - November 18, 2009 at 03:08 am

I work in the Middle East and have worked abroad for some time. I have discovered that lateness and perceived disrespect is very much a cultural attitude. When I first moved to ME, I was quite offended at students being late to class, and did all the tricks listed above --locking the door (faculty were told they had to stop, fire hazard, etc.), penalizing in grades, etc. After some time, I began to adapt. Can anyone really guarantee arrival anywhere at precisely 10:00, versus 10:05? And why did we create so much anxiety in US/UK/Germany about being exactly on time? Are we athletes, whose careers continue or die based on a stopwatch? No. Faculty are also not hourly employees. I relaxed a bit, explained my cultural perspective to my students, came to agreement with them as to what is too late. Result: overall, my life is much less stress free now that I don't worry about being to a meeting or starting class at precisely 10:00. I now enjoy having a few minutes to chat with colleagues or students if I'm early and I don't worry about hurrying if I am habitually 5 minutes late because I have a class on a campus across town just before a meeting. I also don't fume because someone else is late, and I don't waste time plotting revenge or ways to implement behavioral modification techniques. I now have to ask, why are we so disrespected by lack of punctuality that we actually take a passive aggressive approach such as locking the doors at a given time to punish late-doers and worry so much about why a colleague is late? Now I worry about whether I should delete or add a paragraph in an article I'm about to submit...seems a more productive, healthier worry to me.

42. alilamos - November 18, 2009 at 08:13 am

These comments are proof that people who are so rigid about "being on time" are also a*******. I agree that there are 2 types of people. Those that relish the joy and wonder of this life and those that want to squeeze all the joy out of this world so it can perform on time. In my experience, people who get upset about other's lateness are unpleasant, judgemental people in general, who don't value their intimate relationships and convince themselves that work is the most important thing in the whole world. There is also the cultural perspective, wherein some cultures value relationships over timeliness and will be late to a meeting in order to finish a conversation with a neighbor, family member, friend. Sorry, but when I'm on my deathbed, I will think about all the joy I experienced. I will not think about the meetings I was late to.

43. cbobbitt - November 18, 2009 at 08:30 am

Discussants on this topic might enjoy a poem by John Updike that touches on the issue. For whom does the poet have the greater scorn: the narrator or the main character?

Time's Fool
by John Updike

Frederick Alexander Pott
arrives at parties on the dot.
The drinks have not been mixed, the wife
is still applying, with a knife,
extract of shrimp and chicken spread
to parallelograms of bread
when Pott appears, remarking, "I'm
afraid I'm barging in on time."

Frederick Pott is never late
for any rendezvous or date.
Arrange to meet at some hotel;
you'll find he's been there since the bell
tolled the appointed hour. Not
intending to embarrass, Pott
says shyly, "Punctuality
is psychological with me."

Pott takes the most preposterous pains
to suit the scheduled times of trains.
He goes to concerts, races, plays,
allowing nicely for delays,
and at the age three score and ten
Pott plans to perish; doubtless then
he'll ask, as he has often done,
"This was the time agreed upon?"

44. ougrad1764 - November 18, 2009 at 08:45 am

It doesn't matter if one is on time (efficiency) to a meeting or not; what matters is why the meeting exists in the first place (effectiveness). Most meetings, especially in academia, exist solely because somebody perceived them as necessary, rather than the meeting actually serving a valued purpose. Why worry about being on time to a meeting when all that will be addressed is information more effectively -- and efficiently -- communicated in an email? In that sense, whose time is being wasted? The writer of this article would perceive it to be his own, while everyone else at the meeting, punctual or tardy, would see the situation as their time being wasted, so thus the lack of interest about being on time in the first place.

One also forgets the importance of relational communication and task communication, and that a balance must exist between the two. Especially varying by culture, but in the simplest form, we do not work in academia simply to mass-produce widgets (or as some may think of such widgets as students); academia _by its very nature_ is not an efficient, always-on-time system. I'd rather have faculty and staff focus on being _effective_ educators rather than watching the clock and scolding each other for being a few minutes late. In the end, as a previous commenter stated, will anyone really care a year from now if a member was late to a meeting or a student was late to class? Really??

"I'd rather live life to the fullest than worry about dying on-time."

45. eddyp989 - November 18, 2009 at 08:47 am

Regarding the comment by #24 momprof, who admits to being chronically late to class, and acknowledges this as a problem - I believe that faculty create a host of problems by being chronically late to class. This tells students that their collective time is less valuable than the profs (power issue), that the class is really not that important to the prof (so why should it be to them). And, even worse since students do learn by example, they begin to arrive late themselves, and feel that it is ok...

46. pikolo - November 18, 2009 at 10:14 am

Das akademische Viertel is a long-standing tradition and common custom not only in Germany, but also in countries north from Germany, at least. Of course, we have a native "translation" for it; we (Finns) don't use German. Classes are marked in the schedule eg. 13-14, which means the classes start at 13.15 and end at 14.00. Classes last 45 minutes (or 90) - nothing to do with professors or students being late. Just a practical matter allowing people to leave and enter the class room, ventilate it etc. The term das akademische Viertel is used generally if the meeting cannot start in time, as "Do we allow das akademische Viertel?"

47. anthropos - November 18, 2009 at 11:08 am

Actually, it is not unheard of in the US. UC Berkeley functions on cum tempore akademische Viertel. Courses are listed on the hour but everyone knows it means the actual class begins at 10 past.
It's called "Berkeley Time" by the students- most of whom mistakenly think it is an artifact of "laid back" 60's counter-culture. It occasionally causes confusion for dual-enlisted students, like those who matriculate at UC San Francisco, the graduate medical campus, where they run sin tempore then cross the Bay for courses at Berkeley.

48. saraclausen - November 18, 2009 at 11:32 am

In my four-decade-long experience with university meetings, I find that most people arrive within 5 minutes or so of the stated time and this bothers nobody. It's the guy who's way late and doesn't call to warn the others, especially if s/he is the chair or otherwise is crucial to what's going on, who irritates people. Such behavior, if chronic, is nothing but a power play.

49. superdude - November 18, 2009 at 01:39 pm

Sorry aliliamos, but when you're at work, you're to act professionally. You're not getting paid to daydream or to be distracted by pretty birds. And if your laziness and distractedness interferes with the ability of others to get their work done, you should be reprimanded.

Further, chronic lateness at work implies chronic lateness outside of work. Who's the a****** when your failure to arrive on time to pick up your kid from my house causes my son to miss an activity? When your failure to arrive on time causes us to miss the opening act of a show or miss our dinner reservation? When your failure to arrive on time causes us to miss the train/plane/automobile?

It's called respect for others. But you're apparently too busy relishing the joy of life, without considering that you're spoiling that joy for someone else.

50. crunchycon - November 18, 2009 at 04:14 pm

In my courses, when tardiness became an issue, i started giving quizzes the first 7 or 8 minutes of class - no makeups allowed. It worked.

51. graylibrary - November 18, 2009 at 04:30 pm

Some of Munger's observations leave me to wonder if he has secretly been hiding in our building and taking notes! His comments are too true to be funny, and yet I had to laugh!

52. velvis - November 18, 2009 at 04:48 pm

I find I personally have a compulsion to be on time if not early due in part to the fact that I was often late for school (not my doing) and even more often had detention for it.

My best friend has a prediliction for being late so I, finally realizing that she's not going to change, tell her I'm meeting her 45 minutes earlier than when I actually plan on being there.

This doesn't work on a professional level and telling your chair when your 30 minutes late "Well at least it's not an hour," is going to result in negative encounters.

I agree that it is painfully rude for others to be late or to assume that the meeting should be held up for them or that I should be late for the remainder of my activities for the day when they cause things to go late.

I have an "AIS" policy when it comes to my classes "___ in seat." If you're not there on time (which means you're in the seat not scooting in the door), unless you have notified me before hand be prepared to be embarassed, miss something or in other ways suffer the consequences.

53. beaming - November 18, 2009 at 05:11 pm

I didn't read all the comments, but I'm surprised not to see a mention of some advice I was given, that the best way to be on time is to be early. Knowing all about not giving myself enough time to get to places on time and becoming more mature, I've learned to allot extra time, and arriving early allows me to be more relaxed and ready to have a productive meeting. And leaving early almost always allows for the things that can make me late to have less of an impact and the change to arrive just in time. Great article and food for thought from everyone!

54. jmorrison - November 18, 2009 at 08:25 pm

I was coprincipal investigator on a project with Mr. Munger's father, who was at that time the director of an institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. Since our project was part of the institute's activities, I was asked to participate in institute staff meetings for the duration of the project. No one to my recollection was ever late to one of these meeting. Why? The meetings were all stimulating intellectual activities.

Solution: have substantive, exciting meetings and no one will be late.

James L. Morrison
Professor Emeritus of Educational Leadership
UNC-Chapel Hill

55. flatfilsoc - November 18, 2009 at 09:57 pm

"There is mechanical time and there is body time. ..." (Einstein's Dreams,Lightman, 2004)

As other have mentioned, the concept of Late or "on time" is culturally specific and the varies by social context and micro-organizational norms -- i.e. set by colleagues, school tradition, or instructor.

Most of my life, the normal follow-up question is to ask when establishing a meeting time, "Are we on CPT Time or Clock Time?) CPT or "Body time" translates differently depending on one's background: "Creative People's Time," "Culturally-Specific People's Time," or "Colored's People Time."

Some of us need to be early and some of us do not want to be there, one second more than we have to thus late reduces how much time we have to endure. Selfish, perhaps but so are the selfish people who call meetings that waste my time.

56. jtshaw2 - November 19, 2009 at 08:34 am

All this reminds me of Peter Buck, guitarist for R.E.M., who once noted that the success of the band was rooted in hard work and constant touring. "You can go a long ways in this business by showing up on time, ready to play."

57. anon4now - November 19, 2009 at 09:27 am

Culturally specific? Yes indeed. And in a US university, the culture is to show up on time. If I am a "culturally-relaxed-about-time" person, I am smart enough to adapt to the culture I am in, i.e., one that requires and rewards punctuality. If I'm a super-punctual person who finds herself in a relaxed-about-time culture, then I likewise am smart enough to adapt and to show up more flexibly, fitting in with the fluid expectations of the place. Not to do so, either way, is just not very smart.

In other words, cultural difference is not an adequate excuse for a failure to adapt to prevailing local conditions. (Stupidity or arrogance might be, though.)

As a creative type, I agree with those above who say that to show up on time is to respect what you're doing and to respect other people. The idea that creative people are unpunctual or disrespectful is nonsense--diva behavior is unacceptable, and even among real divas, is a big pain. The a******s are the people who show up late, not the people who set an honest time and keep to it. There is not only a disrespect for others but a dishonesty and a kind of passive-aggressiveness lurking in the chronically late behavior. Do you do what you say you're going to do, or not? People are deciding that about you every day.

You can disagree all you like with these & other negative opinions about what chronically late behavior means. But if you know that your lateness is making at least half the people in the room think you are selfish, lazy, dishonest, passive-aggressive, flaky, pathetic, whiny, not trustworthy, annoying, or some other unprofessional thing, does it really matter if they're wrong about that? You are sending signals that you know people will read (and now you know that a whole lot of people read this particular signal very, very negatively indeed, even if we make no comment).

You are teaching people what to think about you every time you wander in with your tired excuses. Why would you continue to reinforce a negative opinion about yourself?
Why not simply show up on time? It's just not that hard.

58. hayahways - November 19, 2009 at 09:46 am

I no longer answer my phone 45 minutes before a meeting. That way, the "on-time" group has to find someone else to:

* remind them where the meeting will be
* print and bring an extra copy of the agenda/pre-readings
* complain to about there being a meeting

59. samueloulrey - November 19, 2009 at 11:59 am

It would be better to avoid making such promises which we know we have no way of guaranteeing we can keep. We don't all have reliable transportation. We're over-crowded, so you never know when traffic along your car or bus or train route will be delayed. We never know when our bodies will decide we've been skimping sleep too much for the last week and make us oblivious to the alarm clocks, sun-light streaming in, cats frantically demanding to be fed... (to which must be added the division of people into those who find it easier to go to bed earlier and get up early to try to finish something on the last day and those who do better to put in that extra effort by burning the mid-night oil but would be unable to get to sleep or wake significantly earlier than usual).

R' Dovid Rosenfield
_Pirkei Avos_ "The Truth but not the Whole Truth" chapter4 mishna9
"Rabbi Yishmael his (Rabbi Yossi's) son said: One who withdraws himself from serving as judge spares himself of hatred, robbery and unnecessary oaths. And one who is arrogant in rendering decisions is foolish, evil and conceited."
"in the midst of judges does G-d judge." --- David HaMelech (Palms 82:1)

Besides, as others have pointed out, most time at most conferences, meetings (and all too many classes*) is wasted in posturing and blathering that we'd all be better off just to skip. (*I've always been amazed at how much time in classes and space in text-books is spent in belaboring the obvious, right up to the point of some great un-bridged leap into the unknown, which usually happens just after your bright, creative mind has shut down for lack of anything interesting to consider. And how often vital details are glossed over or rushed past.)

60. blesstayo - November 19, 2009 at 01:33 pm

Should parents cry or rejoice about overdue babies who arrive LATE into the world?

What should be done to attorneys who technically DELAY court case?

what should be done to judges who POSTPONE sentencing dates?

Should meterologists be punished for rain and snow that end later than forecasted?

Shoud medical doctors be terminated for operations that end later than predicted?

Should hospitals reimburse me for each appointment that do not start on time?

Should politicians be fired for DELAYS on vital decisions?

All I know is that time still flies like an arrow just like fruit flies like banana

61. latino - November 19, 2009 at 02:16 pm

Time is money.
Money is everything.
So Time is everything, but money is still money.
Without money today, who cares?

I see...the feeling you control everything...wise guy.

P.S.: Attending on time those meetings to hear that our budget is zero make me really sick with my zero tolerance after the third tardy.

62. consideritdone - November 19, 2009 at 07:09 pm

I'm fascinated by this thread in part because I am among the chronically late and have tried various techniques to remedy this habit, with uneven success. I recognize that some people choose to find my lateness a personal affront, and perceive that I value my time more than theirs. This is not the case.

I'm not late because I hate waiting. That has nothing to do with it. I am late because I overcommit, because I underestimate how long tasks will take, because I am a workaholic, and especially because few meetings that I attend actually begin at the appointed hour. Given the choice of arriving early or "on time" and doing some pre-meeting socializing (which can be valuable and fun, too) or finishing the sentence I am writing, I will almost always choose the latter. Then I arrive after the appointed hour. This might be late, or it might be "on time" if on time is defined as the actual moment at which the meeting begins. I never know in advance which outcome will come to pass. (So maybe I am often late because I am a gambler?)

My point is that the variability of actual start times compared to "advertised" start times contributes to lateness. In my town, there is a certain theater that begins movies after the advertised start time when there are still a lot of people in line to get tickets. I imagine they think they are being polite. What they are doing is training their patrons to be late. (And some of us need no assistance with this, as I've confessed.)

I'd suggest that in Mr. Munger's academic culture, the norm is that meetings do not begin at the appointed hour, yet he has not adapted to this reality; he expects punctuality. Meeting organizers have the most control in these situations. If you're in charge and punctuality matters to you (a value not everyone shares), start on time and don't do anything to accommodate latecomers.

63. mcmunger - November 20, 2009 at 08:17 am


Wow. A poster child. Everyone who is chronically late makes it seem as the late person is someone better, even noble. YOU, unlike everyone else, are busier, a workaholic.

I hope you don't teach logic, though. First, you claim "I'm not late because I hate waiting. That has nothing to do with it."

And then you IMMEDIATELY say that you are usually late "especially because few meetings that I attend actually begin at the appointed hour." In other words, you hate waiting!

You are not a workaholic; you are simply inefficient and self-absorbed. That's fine; most of us are (I certainly am). One has to be, in fact, to be a successful academic and live mostly inside one's own head. And I'm sure you are in fact a terrific scholar. Perhaps we are making too much of this whole "late" thing; it's not that big a deal.

But I should note the following:

1. Most meetings DO start at the appointed hour, at Duke. But they start without important people (like YOU, consideritdone!) who are socializing, or writing one more sentence.

2. None of your reasons for being late involve unexpected events. You are NOT a Platonic Traveller. You are in fact intentionally and habitually late, as a matter of policy. That makes sense to me, and I applaud you for it. Many meetings are a waste of time, and you can show everyone else how important you are by arriving late.

My complaint, in the little article, is about people who arrive late, ALWAYS arrive late, and then make an excuse. The fact is that they left home, or their office, AFTER THE MEETING WAS SUPPOSED TO START. They are not sorry, in short. They are late on purpose, and won't admit it, even to themselves.

Consideritdone, you are honest and self-aware. I applaud you.

64. douglashusca - November 24, 2009 at 02:57 pm

I have the same reaction to Consideritdone's comment as mcmunger--A great example of self-congratulation posing as explanation. Also notice how many times "I" is used, especially in the first couple of paragraphs.

Beyond these specifics, what seems to be the issue in the original article and the comments following it is the definition of academic culture (no surprise there's little agreement there, especially since a cardinal aspect of academic culture is disagreement itself). In the end this kind of thing will be decided in individual departments, as that is the key organizational unit in the academy.

65. luabear - November 24, 2009 at 03:41 pm

I scheduled my dissertation defense (oddly enough, at Duke University) 3 months in advance of the date because I and, and another professor, were travelling in from out of town. One professor (office down the hall) showed up 20 minutes late and casually strolled in without so much as an appology.

I agree with everything the author said. It was so rude! It was clearly this professor's way of sending a message that his time was more valuable than that of the student and 3 other professors sitting in the room who then had to start a 2 hour defense 20 minutes late. Also, this professor found a way to make it all about him when it was not his moment (it was the student's!).

He should have thought about this when, years later, I'm sure that he would like his manuscript (that that former student is now anonymously reviewing) reviewed promptly! Generally, I am a very prompt reviewer, but right now I kind of feel like I have more important things to do....

66. laoshi - November 27, 2009 at 01:14 pm

@flatfilsoc (#55): Did you really mean to post "Colored's People Time."?

WTF? Can you elaborate?

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