My friend and I don’t share the same definition of what it means to be on-time. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “early is on-time, on-time is late, late is unacceptable” theory, but I do try to arrive at or before an agreed upon time. She thinks there is wiggle room surrounding any appointment time – 5 or 10 minutes – and doesn’t seem concerned that I’ve been waiting for her to arrive. The good news is, if I’m running behind schedule, it doesn’t bother her that I arrive late. But if I’m going to be 5 to 10 minutes late, I’ll notify her. She would never think to do the same – because in her mind she’s on-time.

Perhaps I have too strict a definition of what it means to be on-time. Is 5 minutes considered late to everyone or just to me? We surveyed TRC’s online consumer panel to get an answer.

We used 5 minutes as our test case. If an appointment time is at 9:00 and actual arrival is 9:05, do you consider yourself on-time or late (or early)? To make things interesting, we asked about a variety of scenarios, since it’s possible that definitions may change based on the social situation.

If your boss calls an urgent meeting and you arrive 5 minutes past the start time, 2/3 of our participants consider that to be “late”.  When I saw that, at first I felt vindicated. But then I realized that if 2/3 are saying they’re late, that means 1/3 say it’s okay – 5 minutes is on-time or even early. Then I looked at the rest of the scenarios: 2/3 consider 5 minutes as “late” for babysitting or for a weekly religious service. If you show up 5 minutes after your reservation time at a restaurant, only 57% consider that to be late. And if you’re meeting a friend for casual dinner (no reservations), only 47% -- less than half of the adults we surveyed -- believe that 5 minutes off-schedule is actually “late”. What’s this world coming to?

being late infographics TRC

We asked a separate matched sample of panelists these same questions, but instead of framing it as they themselves being late, we framed it as someone else arriving 5 minutes after the appointed time. There were no major differences between the two groups as a whole - people have the same attitude toward others’ behavior as they do themselves. But in digging a little deeper, it turns out that men asked about others’ behavior were far more likely to say the other person was on-time, and women were far more likely to say the other person was late. We didn’t see this pattern when people were asked about themselves. So what does this mean? Women are more judgmental when it comes to others’ behavior? Hmmm. I’m not sure I feel good about these results.

Of course, now that I’m taking a stand against being late for things, I’m setting myself up to be criticized on those occasions when I don’t live up to my own standards. So I need to make sure I’m on-time, but on the other hand, it seems at least 1/3 of people won’t notice if I’m not!

I'm sure that just as lateness annoys me, I do things to annoy my friends. Perhaps, we should construct a conjoint analysis to find out which little annoyances are the most threatening to friendships!