It’s not you, and definitely not me, but I know we both have a friend who’s always late. I’ll sit around in the freezing cold waiting for him to meet me for a run, my muscles refreezing, my keys slowly chilling my pockets, and look down to discover that wherever he is… he’s just liked my last week of Instagram pics.
No call. No text. But when he arrives I get a dubious traffic accident story, zero apology for my now-frozen hamstrings and alienation to begin something I hate doing in the first place.
We all know the magic of perfect timing. The green lights hot streak of ’98. Platform-to-platform subway transfers. The universe is smiling on you. And then it’s not. And you know you’re going to be late.
“You’re saying, ‘I’m sorry I was late, I didn’t intend to be late,’ ” CEO and author Peter Bregman explains. “But the person who’s been waiting for twenty minutes isn’t experiencing your intention. They’re experiencing the impact of the result.”
Being late gets extra painful knowing you’re putting out other people, who will be dicks when you finally get wherever you’re going. But most latecomers address the wrong part of the equation, which makes it worse. Being late is like being a bad houseguest. You’re taking something without asking—and asking someone else to be cool with it. A bad guest might use the wrong towel to clean up a spill or open a bottle of wine you were saving, but someone who’s chronically late takes your most precious asset: time.
The truth is: You’re late all the time. I’m late all the time. Meetings go over. Subway cars vanish in the tunnels on their way to you. Traffic blows. It’s a fact of life. It’s still totally inexcusable. Why? Because no one needs the excuse. The Golden Rule gets thrown out the window: I love being perfectly on time because I hate waiting for other people. Forget the fact that those other people had to wait for me.
In college you get to walk in late for a class with a steaming cup of coffee, mouthing sips of the too-hot lid on the way to your seat five minutes later. Sorry. The traffic. At Starbucks on the way here. OK, I’m ready. What time is class over? I have to leave early.
But you’re not in college. You’re a man working a job that pays money for your time. And you can’t own up for the time you’ve cost.
The reality: Being late doesn’t get excused by an accident in front of you or a delayed train. (Although you can give a courtesy call or text aboveground before you’re late to let them know). Because no one cares why you’re late—and secretly, since we all do this, we know you’re probably lying or were already late when the train didn’t show.
It comes down to one fundamental problem, according to CEO and author Peter Bregman: “You’re saying, ‘I’m sorry I was late, I didn’t intend to be late,’ ” he explains. “But the person who’s been waiting for you for twenty minutes isn’t experiencing your intention. They’re experiencing the impact of the result.”
And regardless of how it happened, your excuse doesn’t really matter as much as what you do to resolve it. Bregman recommends focusing not on what caused your lateness, but what your lateness caused.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“Sorry we don’t have as much time before your flight.”
“Sorry about that, we’ll dive in and hopefully have time for questions.”
“Thank you for your flexibility.”
“Thank you for being so patient.”
This is, in essence, a playwriting technique. You walk on stage and you’re not late because something just happened, but you being late caused ___ to happen and so now this ___ happens.
“It’s a subtle difference,” Bregman says. “But it makes all the difference for the person who’s sitting there.”
Or standing there in the freezing f**king cold.