“OMG, Bill, you’re late. Again! The movie already started.”
The room was still as people turned to see what the upset was about. The accusation stopped everyone cold for a moment. You could almost see the gears in Bill's head grind as he looked for a defense.
Whether it’s arriving in person or returning a phone call, email, or text, it’s hard not to be annoyed when someone doesn't appear when they said they would.
The person waiting is kept from something else they might have done if they weren’t anticipating your contact. Instead of the pleasure of speaking with you, they’re experiencing the tension that comes from being in an unsettled state and unsure of what to do.
Minds start rolling with typical questions of concern and then turn to anger as time progresses. Are they not going to show up? Could I have the time wrong? Has there been an accident? Should I wait or leave? How rude of them not to be here? Do they think I have nothing better to do? I feel dismissed and disregarded. And so the tone for your time together is set.
Life happens. Interruptions do just that, cars break, public transit is not precise, clothing needs changing, and even the most carefully planned preparation time can balloon into inaccuracy.
“Cripes! I’m not late, Steve. It's only 3:05! I’ve actually made great time getting here. Calm down. I said 3ish, not that I’d be here at 3,” Bill was irritated, too. “Plus, the movie didn’t start; the previews only just started.”
We expect people to show up when they say they will. On the other hand, people arrive when they expected they would, too. (Reread these two sentences. It’s essential.)
Expect is the keyword in many disagreements about time and almost anything else people conflict over. Combine the idea of expectation with when they said they would, and you have a recipe for discord.
Family and cultural traditions influence our attitudes and behaviors.
We also have preconceived ideas that define how we speak about time and how we define reliability. These powerful histories and individualized rules influence our actions and responses, yet we’re often unaware of them.
I was asked to speak to a group of community education teachers charged with helping parents learn ways to educate their pre-school children at home. The city program’s success (and future funding) depended on teachers meeting with a specific number of parent clients during the allotted time. Appointments were scheduled at clock time: 2 pm or 3:30 pm.
In contrast to the teachers’ agendas, the parents were tuned to their children’s unpredictable and flowing moods, nap, and snack time.
In their daily life as parents of young children, being available in the afternoon was the best appointment commitment they could promise.
The teachers were frustrated because they couldn’t meet their work goals. The administrators were bothered because it seemed like a simple issue: Make an appointment and show up. Didn't the parents care about their kids' development?
The parents and kids lost valuable training if they couldn’t be available during the appointment time. In many cases, due to cultural time differences, the parents didn’t understand why the teachers were bothered when they missed appointments.
How would you handle it?
In the meantime, let’s get back to listening to the differences between Steve and Bill’s viewpoints. (Meantime?)
Steve expected precision. Bill expected appreciation for the effort he made to be within his version of on time, which he feels has a 20-minute range. They’re speaking different time languages.
Here's a simple, super effective tip:
Practice using more precise time talk to avoid the attitude hardening resulting from repeatedly feeling misunderstood and under-appreciated.
What’s your definition of an appointment?
Is it different from an intention, which is an approximation of when you will leave or arrive?
Do you view an appointment with your accountant differently than you do a visit with a friend? Why? Do you clarify your plan, or do you assume your friend understands you’re agreeing to a range of departure time and not a specific time?
Usually people view an appointment as a promise to be available at a specific time, like committing to be at a doctor’s office at 2:15 pm? Sounds like a firm plan, right?
But are you going to arrive at 2:15 or be ready to see the doctor by 2:15?
It's easy to underestimate how long things will take. Plan time to park, enter the building, remove coats and other minor actions that absorb time. Is the doctor going to see you at 2:15 or 2:30? That’s a big difference, especially if you’re planning on being out of the office by a specific time.
What if you were told, “The doctor intends to begin your exam at 2:30 and asks you to be at the reception desk no later than 2:15 so we can process your required paperwork. We welcome you to arrive as early as 2, but no earlier. If the doctor is going to be more than 10 minutes later than 2:30, we will let you know, and you may choose to reschedule.” (One can dream, right?)
Please arrive for dinner at 5:48, sharp.
What’s your reaction to that? Does 5:48 sound weird? Picky? What’s the difference between 5:45 and 5:48? Like a speed limit sign that says 28 mph, it gets your attention.
What's your reaction to the word sharp? Is it a command or a definition? Do you have a positive or negative reaction to it? Do you go here: Oh, ok, I understand the timing is important. Or here: What? Who do they think they are demanding me to show up when they decided?
Time Talk Landmines
At A specific time on the clock and the least likely to cause a fuss
Ish A range of time that people interpret differently
Around Like ish. Clarify what you think that means
Soon Your sooner might be my later. Probably is.
Later Your later may be too early or late for me.
Sooner or later What?
A few days How many? Can we get a day or a date here?
Around 15 minutes on each side of a specific time? Or 30?
Too Early If the person you’re to see isn’t ready, even 5 minutes before a specified time may be too early and throw off their schedule.
Wasted time Generally, it’s the time you waited for someone, but wanted to spend doing something else. A prime relationship buster.
Afternoon Is that 12:15 or 3:45?
Early evening 5 or 7? 9 or 11? There are generational differences in this one, too.
Lunchtime 11 or 2?
Dinnertime 5 or 8? (Supper time? Tea time?)
Meantime Between this and that? Is this the time the bullies are out in force?
And the one that always drives me (and you) bonkers, "I'm always late."
Can we talk about that? Are you interested in changing that? It's not funny, you're stressing people, and your credibility is suffering.
Learn to hear differences in time talk, and take a minute to clarify what you intend, and what others think will happen. You’ll make it easier for everyone, you’ll help others learn to say what they mean and mean what they say, and best of all, other people won't be able to waste your time.