A Culture of Lateness

March 12, 2012

The other night, my lady friend and I went to see the Cirque du Soleil show that’s currently in residence in Santa Monica. I enjoyed myself immensely. But what really caught my attention (enough to write about it now) was what happened after the first act.

Cirque has a policy that prevents tardy patrons from entering the main tent until a time designated by the ushers. Not an uncommon occurrence in the world of live performance, I’m sure. But what I found very telling was just how many latecomers came pouring in. Only in LA, I muttered to myself. Especially on the west side.

Now, I’m not one to typically blame the city of Los Angeles for the various perceived flaws and idiosyncrasies that I encounter (something I got over after I returned to LA in ’97) but this is something that is certainly more characteristic of LA than other cities. When you attend a Dodgers game, you will often find most of the crowd arriving beyond the 2nd or 3rd inning. Lakers fans are similarly derided around the NBA for seeing no urgency in arriving on time to see their championship caliber team. Perhaps this is acceptable for a sporting event where the outcome is largely in flux until the last five minutes. But for a performance designed to be filled with entertaining moments? It doesn’t make sense.

To me, it seems there are two issues at play here. First, if you’re late to a show or game, you don’t really care about enjoying the show or game, but you are interested in the status that comes from attending. You want credit for going and don’t really care about what you are participating in.

Second, there’s a certain entitlement that comes with being late. When a person is late, they are signaling to the rest of the world that they are not interested in playing by the same rules as everybody else. Certainly there are unforeseen circumstances that can prevent you from getting to work on time every once in a while, but if somebody is late on a regular basis, they are signaling to you that they are not interested in making the minimal effort it takes to get somewhere on time.

Like I used to tell prospective jurors in my previous life, if you’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough to get called for jury duty, you’ve lived here long enough to know how traffic works, how to allow enough time to account for unexpected accidents and construction. If it was important to you, you would be on time everywhere you go. But it’s not important to many people.

Which means the perpetually tardy people either they don’t perceive the inconvenience they are causing other people, they perceive the inconvenience but don’t care, or they perceive the inconvenience and enjoy causing it.

I have a friend who is late everywhere she goes. It is not unusual for her to keep me waiting 2 or 3 hours when we have plans. A few years ago when I invited a few people out for dinner and drinks for my birthday, she showed up after we had already paid the bill and left. Over time, I came to factor her unique schedule into whatever plans we made. Going to the movies? Tell her 6:30, then start looking for movies that will be starting around 9:00. Planning to eat dinner first? Grab a snack at home and look for nearby bars that serve appetizers.

I never complained. At some point in the relationship, I came to the conclusion that I have to either accept her flaws and deal with them, or not be friends with her. But the catch is that I no longer invite her to events that actually matter to me. After missing significant portions of great concerts because of her, I stopped going with her. If there’s a movie I really want to see, or a show with a specific start time, I go solo, or with somebody else. I barely see her anymore.

But is that the right approach?

I know that my friend perceives the inconvenience she causes, but she probably doesn’t appreciate the scope of the inconvenience. Or, if she does know what she’s doing, she needs the attention caused by being late more than she needs her friends from being inconvenienced. She is not likely to change her ways unless there are negative consequences that come with them. And frankly, I don’t think the deterioration of our friendship is significant enough to her to cause her to be more considerate of others.

As for the city at large, what can be said about a poor etiquette pandemic? Can there be a cure for rudeness that many don’t perceive to be rudeness?

Can we begin a mass shaming effort to improve our city timeliness?