On Being Late

In Costa Rica, when someone says, “I’ll be there in five minutes,” five minutes can be anything from 10 to 15 (to even an hour), depending on the context. When I was living back home, I knew that in most situations, being five minutes late somewhere was not a big deal. Dance classes would start roughly at 5:05 p.m., not 5’o clock; coffee with a friend around 4:30 p.m., not the planned 4:00 p.m.; your mom saying you are leaving at 9:00 a.m., but you know it’s really 9:15.

When I moved to the States for college, I was surprised at how much importance is given to every minute in this country. I now understand why the expression “time is money”exists. Being late is considered rude and selfish by social norm. Lateness in the United States means being a couple of minutes behind scheduled time. Lateness in Costa Rica (and I could argue Latin America) means being over a half hour late or more. There is a different perception of time and a different rhythm of life in the countries. In Spain, people have dinner at 10 or 11 p.m. and in the United States it is normally around 6 or 7 p.m.

Time is a societal, cultural construct. But, even so it has consequences in our lives. When I started college, I experienced complete culture shock. I was moving at my own time and my own inner clock was still working according to the norms I learned back home. I never saw a problem in entering a class five minutes late, until I realized I was being offensive to my professor and fellow students without meaning to. I have realized the importance of time in interpersonal relationships, and I am working at being punctual. I have to push myself (because it’s a challenge) to be on time, and ‘on time’ by North-American standards. But, those couple of minutes that make the difference always seem to be rushing past me: encapsulated in small situations that only make me realize how ironic (and comedic) life can be.

1. Mornings—they are just crowded with possibilities for lateness, even more when you aren’t a morning person. Every morning is full of wonders:

The snooze button on your phone is a big ally to tardiness, and you know it, but you still want five more minutes in bed (because they tend to be very long five minutes.)

An even better trick is when you set up the alarm, but mistake the AM for the PM settings. Do not fear, your alarm will go off 12 hours after you actually needed it.

Once, and if, you make it out of bed you will already be haunted by the ghost of tardiness. Proceed to get showered and dressed. But, you have to change shirts five different times because it’s that kind of day and nothing feels okay on you. Or, it could be a bad hair day. Regardless, either one will require attention and the extra minutes that are your enemies.

Just when you lock the door behind you, you will realize you left the keys, phone or wallet behind. Sometimes even the full backpack. Now, go find them and run!

2. The Trek—once you are late, getting to wherever you are going will be a trek. And, your anxiety about being on time but knowing that time has been lost will make it even harder. But, it’s okay because you can always find something to blame it on: 

The T, because you know the green line sucks. And public transportation is a disaster and out of your hands.

The traffic, because your teacher or boss can’t really know for a fact whether that accident or construction was actually happening.

The weather, especially during the winter. It’s always the snow’s fault. Always!

3. Arriving—that is the moment between the trek and the moment where you actually arrive. When you sit down in class or meet with a friend or check in at work. Those final little seconds are always key.

But, Murphy’s Law is always playing with you. The elevators will always be too crowded. This is especially the case in a school like Emerson, where the ratio of people to elevators is messed up. When you open the door to a building, and you have two minutes left to be almost on time, but there is a line for the elevator, you are doomed. 

Or you will run into someone that talks a lo, and you really don’t want to be rude and you have to go, but they insist for a quick little chat.

Or it will take forever to find a good parking space.

Or you will need to run to the bathroom because you can’t hold it and there is no other option.

These are some of the ironies in my daily life that sometimes hold me back from being on time. I like to look at them in retrospective and laugh, although I now understand cultural norms of time. I am trying to improve my punctuality, but no one is perfect and it’s important to be able to laugh at yourself.

Although I mock being late, I only do it because I appreciate seeing the differences in social contexts in relation with time. While being late is rude—and I have come to understand that—I also think that time should not be taken so seriously. Always judging according to the right context and, most importantly, knowing that taking life with some humor will make you a happier person.

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