Dinner’s Getting Cold

Dear Helena,

My brother is always late, no matter how important the occasion. Last Thanksgiving he was two hours late and we waited for him until the turkey got cold. He doesn’t understand that you need to factor in time to get ready and travel to your meeting point. He typically leaves his house at the time we’ve arranged to meet. I’ve tried calling him at the time he should be leaving, but he doesn’t answer because he’s in the shower. I’ve tried sitting him down and explaining that his lateness really bothers me. But nothing works. What’s the best way to make a chronically late guest show up on time? Or should you just start dinner without them? —Always on Time

Dear Always on Time,

Lateness isn’t just a bad habit, like brushing your teeth too hard. It’s often the symptom of underlying emotional issues. A 1997 study conducted in association with San Francisco State University by Diana DeLonzor, author of Never Be Late Again: 7 Cures for the Punctually Challenged (Post Madison, 2003), found that the chronically late suffer from higher-than-average anxiety and depression and lower self-esteem. Tardiness can serve as a distraction from these negative emotions. If you’re a late person swept up in “the adrenaline rush of that last-minute sprint to the finish line,” says DeLonzor, you can avoid “feeling your feelings, thinking about your life.”

So in order to start being punctual, habitually late people typically need more than a few time-management tips. They must confront their inner demons. And that’s something they have to do on their own. Chastising them certainly won’t help. “Telling someone not to be late is like telling an alcoholic to stop drinking,” says DeLonzor.

Other strategies aren’t much good either—giving the person a ride, for instance. David Good, a marketer for a social networking start-up in San Francisco, says he’s tried this with a compulsively late couple he knows: “I’ll go to pick them up at 6, and they’ll get back from work at 6:15 and still have to get ready.” In short, says DeLonzor, “if the person doesn’t want to change, there’s little you can do except lie about the time you’re meeting.” But I don’t recommend this ruse, either. If the late person discovers your fib, he may feel infantilized (plus you won’t be able to use the trick again).

Instead of trying to fool a late person into being punctual, try accepting him as he is. It may be useful to remind yourself that even though his lateness is inconveniencing you, it isn’t about you. Good says that when he’s waiting 20 minutes for the couple to get ready and they seem “oblivious to other people’s needs,” it helps to remember that “they’re not oblivious to other people’s needs in other ways.”

Accepting someone’s lateness means making plans that can accommodate it. If you’re meeting your tardy friend in a bar, then do as Good does: “I make sure I always have a book available.” Better yet, arrange for the person to come over to your house. That way you can keep yourself busy while you’re waiting. If the occasion is dinner and other guests are present, be prepared to start the meal without the latecomer. Give your friend a call to let him know—without judgment—that you’re sitting down to eat. Starting without him may sound harsh, but if you wait, you’ll get more and more irritated as your blood sugar drops.

If the occasion demands that the person be there (for instance, it’s his birthday dinner), then build a buffer into your schedule. Have a cocktail hour before the meal. Let the other guests know when you invite them what time dinner will be served. That way they won’t sit around fretting about when they’re going to get fed.

If all this sounds a little too gentle and accepting, DeLonzor suggests sending a lateness citation, reprimanding the person for “extreme and/or repeated lateness” and playfully warning, “Repeated violations may result in lost friendships, damaged client relationships, and/or forfeited career advancement.” You can send the citation anonymously through her website. That way, you can vent a little. Just don’t expect the recipient to start showing up on time.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.