Always late? You could be mentally ill…

Being late is the height of bad manners… but is it really your fault? Yes. Probably.

 

Always late

When I was in my teens, punctuality was held up as a virtue; my private grammar school education taught me that lateness was the most inexcusable of all the sins. Attending the Royal Northern College of Music, punctuality was the first thing drummed into our heads – a talk by the principal on the first day made it quite clear that lateness would not be tolerated. Other transgressions were bad enough, but lateness was the one thing that would not be forgiven. This was good grounding for my short but successful career as a professional orchestral musician – after all, if one person is late, there are another seventy people sat waiting.

However, the definition of punctuality in professional life is not what you think it is. Turning up at 10.00 for a rehearsal that starts at 10.00 simply isn’t enough – you are expected to start playing at 10.00, which means you must be sat with your instrument unpacked, tuned up and the music open in front of you ready for the conductor’s first beat – the first note is played at exactly 10.00.

So in effect, 10.00 doesn’t actually mean 10.00, it actually means 9.50. This is something you get used to and most musicians arrive much earlier, such is the dread, not to mention the shame and embarrassment of being late. Whilst working for the BBC in Manchester, in the orchestra music library, I once saw a principal player in the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra sacked on the spot because he turned up half an hour late to rehearsal. I don’t think there was one person in the orchestra who had much sympathy – ‘death is the only excuse, and even then…’ was a familiar refrain.

And so it is. In the wacky world of show business, you are expected to be there at least 90 minutes before the curtain goes up. If you’re not, there ensues what can only be described as a period of increasing panic, followed by an unpleasant interview with the theatre manager, the severity of which varies depending on the distance you have had to come and the degree of lateness. Theatre managers, like orchestra managers rely on one’s professional courtesy. Cars breaking down, getting lost or stuck in traffic is an excuse held to be so ludicrous it’s an insult to even offer it.

But according to scientist and writer Tim Urban, people who are constantly late may be suffering from a form of mental illness.

This theory offers a new and novel excuse and one I thought worthy of investigation. Apart from rudeness, selfishness, inefficiency and disorganisation, it also throws up an interesting conundrum.

People who are chronically tardy obviously struggle with linear thought processes and therefore must have a different attitude to how they view time. Tim Urban thinks that they may have a ‘bizarre compulsion to defeat themselves’ by making plans that they know they cannot or will not keep. He has even created an acronym to describe those people he believes are suffering from compulsive lateness – CLIPs, or Chronically Late Insane People. I have known only a very few and I can attest to how infuriating they are. The phrase ‘Cape Town time’ I find particularly irritating.

Mr Urban claims there are three reasons why CLIPs are so often late: some are in denial about how time works, some ‘have an aversion to changing circumstances’ and some individuals are ‘mad’ at themselves.

Straight away, I smell a dirty big rat, because I have always thought of CLIPs as being just downright rude, even arrogant and in one case the work of a psychopathic mind. In any case, turning human behaviour, even bad human behaviour into a ‘condition’ or a ‘disorder’ is a mistake, if only for the reason that it offers a too convenient excuse for bad behaviour. Personally, I hold that lateness is like addiction – it’s a choice. Surely, working out what time you have to get up to get to a certain place on time can’t be that difficult!? It’s not because they can’t do it – it’s because they won’t!

There is no genetic or evolutionary advantage to lateness – the meek may inherit the earth, but the late will miss opportunities and get left behind. Lateness smacks of a lack of structure, something that habitually late people have in common. Chronic lateness however has to be viewed in a different way from say, chronic bad handwriting or chronic failure to iron your shirts, because lateness has a direct (and unfair) effect on others.

It’s possible to cure chronic lateness in children by employing the old tried and tested systems of reward and withdrawal of reward. If you’re on time, you get merit points that in turn lead to a greater reward. If you’re late, you miss out on some enjoyable activity such as playing on the school football team. Chronic lateness in adults is also easy to deal with – consistently late employees miss out on promotions and pay increases – they also get fired more often than workers who are punctual and reliable.

It’s possible that the mental pathways responsible for chronic lateness originate in the same part of the brain that’s affected by those who suffer with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In fact, many ADHD sufferers complain they struggle to keep time. But then again, many ADHD sufferers are merely ill disciplined, something that is also curable with the right approach.

Some psychologists believe that chronic lateness could be a symptom of an underlying mood disorder such as depression (there we go with that word ‘disorder’ again.) A recent study of more than 200 people carried out at San Francisco State University showed that 17% of depressives were also chronically late. Then again, depressives have a tendency to want to withdraw from the world and often get to the stage where they can’t be bothered to make an effort to do anything, never mind turn up on time, if at all.

Those unable to be punctual displayed similar patterns in behaviour including anxiety issues and difficulty regulating self-control, especially when it comes to things like over-eating, smoking or even personal cleanliness. Researchers claim that the problem, whether it affects a person personally or professionally, is reversible. For what it’s worth, I agree. I’ve had clients who just needed a push in the right direction.

Psychologists recommend those affected with chronic lateness start the change by making ‘to do’ lists and deadlines for completing tasks non-negotiable. They should also monitor how long it takes to perform certain tasks and always plan to be early, just like normal people. And most important, and as I’ve said before, develop an interest in something – the most effective being to join a choir or any kind of singing group! [See Only the lonely… Loneliness and how to deal with it.]

Some psychologists are sceptical about the claims that chronic lateness is a medical condition and view it as more of a behavioural problem, as do I, and for all the reasons above.

Shame on the chronically late who continue to take advantage of our good natures – and shame on those who put up with it.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.