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In praise of being late: The upside of spurning the clock

People who lose track of time aren't rude, researchers say — they may just be listening to their inner timekeeper instead of an external clock. Living according to "event time" has its benefits.
Islenia Milien for NPR

Are you, like me, chronically late? Do you squeeze in "one more thing" before you leave home, only to lose track of time? Do you frequently show up to meetings or gatherings 15 minutes or more after you intended?

Have you been told by your friends and family that you're being disrespectful and not valuing their time?

Maybe it's partly their problem, anthropologists (goaded by an NPR reporter with a stake in this) say. Maybe your peers obsessed with being on time are actually holding a narrow — and relatively newly established — perspective. Maybe they're off base in thinking that for time to be meaningful it needs to be productive, even billable.

Sure, there are situations where being punctual or even a little early is highly valuable and consequential. If you don't get to the airport gate before it closes, the plane leaves without you. If you're consistently late to work, you might lose your job. And when it's time for a rocket launch, every team member needs to be working in sync to get to BLASTOFF.

But often, in other situations, there's room for give-and-take. Maybe your friends and family members need to chill and stop considering their perspective on punctuality to be clearly and in every way superior.

"We've created this schema that somehow 'being on time' is evidence of how much you value something," says Irma McClaurin, an anthropologist, independent scholar and founder of the Black Feminist Archive, which is based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Equating punctuality with high value is a shortsighted view of history and a narrow view of world cultures, she and other scholars say.

"Clock time" versus "event time" — how did we get here?

Strictly timing our day by the clock — the whole notion of being on time — took off with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, McClaurin explains. That's when the increasing demands of factory work and the growth of railroads combined with the new boom in factory-made clocks and watches to create a new, more rigid expectation of punctuality.

Today, the focus on "synchronizing watches" is still valuable in cities and urban workplaces where a large group of people need to synchronize their activities to achieve a goal. But being less rigid with time, anthropologists, historians and other researchers tell me, continues to have its place and advantages too.

In the 1990s, McClaurin traveled to the small Central American country of Belize as a U.S. graduate student studying the way women organized in their communities. There, she had a revelation — that the importance of being on time is not a universal fact, but a cultural construct.

Whereas in the U.S., where "you're valued according to how timely you are," she says, a missed appointment in Belize, at least back then, was no big deal: "Something comes up and they're not trying to be disrespectful, but sometimes the bus is late, sometimes there's an accident," McClaurin says. There was a general cultural recognition, she says, that "people aren't always in control of the management of time."

While some highly industrialized nations operate on what scholars call "clock time," where the time of day governs when an activity begins and ends, Belize was on "event time," where social events have a stronger influence on the flow of activities. It's a way of life that was much more common historically and still remains the way of life for much of the world today.

"I think that's what we have to put in our head," McClaurin says. "The way that we measure time is really constructed."

There are variations within cultures too

My friend Danielle Hardoon, an American Montessori teacher and consultant, has been notoriously late since childhood, at least according to the clock. She recently moved from the U.S. to Valencia, Spain, which is generally considered a more laid-back, event-time-oriented society. People go home for lunch; they take afternoon siestas. "For dinner, for sure, if someone invites you to dinner at 8 p.m., you can show up at 10 p.m. and you're totally fine," Danielle says. Still, even by Spanish standards, she admits, she often runs "late."

In any given culture, there are clock-time and event-time people living in it — sometimes synchronously and sometimes not, says Anne-Laure Sellier, a business professor at HEC Paris who studies the time mindsets of individuals. "For my work, it doesn't matter what culture you're from," she says. What she's interested in across cultures is how people regulate themselves.

None of us is completely one way or the other in the way we organize our time, Sellier has learned, and most people can successfully function in both modes. But a clock-time person is more likely to look to external time cues — a schedule or a clock — to figure out when to go from one activity to the next, while an event-timer moves along when they "feel" it's time, based on social interactions they're engaged in and whatever else is going on around them. Whichever of the two orientations you have, "it doesn't just shape your activities — it shapes the way you think about the world and the way you make decisions," Sellier says.

Sellier and her collaborator, Tamar Avnet, chair of the marketing department at Yeshiva University in New York City, found in their research that clock-timers cede more than their schedules to the clock — they cede agency too. "If you're a clock[-timer], you're basically surrendering the control of your life to an external mechanism," says Avnet. That runs counter to a commonly held belief that people who are punctual consider themselves masters of time.

Event-timers, on the other hand, feel some control over the flow of their days, even if they can't control everything that happens to them, Avnet says. For instance, if two people are taking a bus to a meeting they've scheduled at 9 a.m. and the bus breaks down, the clock-timer feels stress that the meeting now won't start until 9:30 a.m. The schedule is thrown off and the day is ruined. The event-timer, in contrast, sees that the commute will take longer but assumes that the planned meeting will eventually happen, even if later. Studies suggest event-timers tend to see less chaos in the world at large.

And event-timers tend to be more attuned to their emotions, Sellier says, because they rely on how they're feeling to make decisions throughout their day. They're better at immersing themselves in the moment, adapting to unexpected situations and savoring positive feelings of all kinds.

"We find it with joy, excitement, pride, gratitude," Sellier says. "It holds all across the spectrum of positive emotions."

Meanwhile, clock-timers are more likely to compartmentalize tasks and distance themselves emotionally from situations. That allows them to more easily bring a social or business engagement to a close quickly and leave when the watch dictates, rather than when intuition tells them it is time to move on. It's efficient, but it leaves "less time to stop and smell the roses," says Avnet.

It's not bad. It's not good. It's just different.

For the record, Sellier and Avnet are not lobbying against reliance on clock time, which they say helps improve efficiency and coordination between people. And clock-timers, they note, have their advantages too — they tend to be highly organized "doers" who get things done when they say they will. The trick for organizations, social groups and people of all orientations is to know when to deploy clock-time skills and when to lean into the more intuitive skills of event time.

"The problem," Sellier says, "is that society, particularly in the U.S. but also to a large extent in Europe, is very clock time [in the way things are organized], so we are unnecessarily weeding out people who have different talents."

Make way for flexibility

The point is not to heap equal and opposite judgments on clock- and event-timers but to make room for both views, time scholars say. "It's not bad. It's not good. It's just different," McClaurin says.

The mental and emotional frame we each use to measure and value time is one of many personal perspectives we develop across our lives, influenced by our surroundings and experiences, says Tony Whitehead, a professor emeritus from the University of Maryland, who has trained Peace Corps volunteers on how to better communicate across differences. "When we experience behaviors [that are different from ours], we negatively evaluate them," Whitehead says.

Changing that mindset requires listening — actively listening — to the person on the other side, Whitehead says, "to understand that we all have certain things that affect our lives, and to make room for the other person's [as well]."

Once you accept that the other person has a different construct of time, that realization can defuse the anger and the blame, says Avnet. For example, she knows a couple where "lateness" was a constant source of friction. "It was always that he wanted to leave the house, and she wasn't ready. He thought she didn't respect him. She thought he was nagging and pressuring her," Avnet says. But after hearing about Sellier and Avnet's research, the couple realized they just have different time styles. "They're not angry anymore," Avnet says. "She literally tells me I saved the marriage."

How to play nicely with someone who has a different time style

Sellier, an event-timer, and Avnet, a clock-timer, have worked through this tension in their own research collaboration. "I think of it as a carriage with two horses pulling very strongly in different directions, but we're still moving forward," Sellier says. Avnet works up a timeline for their research and checks in with Sellier frequently to make sure the deadlines are realistic.

"When we work together, I know that when I send an email to Anne-Laure, I'll get a response when I get a response — sometimes in an hour, sometimes a week," Avnet says. "I know I have to put pressure on us to finish it. But she is not insulted by it."

There's no magic solution to working well together — it's just a constant give-and-take between two people with different styles. In each case, the consideration is "What's the reward?" Avnet says. With a deadline looming, if Avnet's preference is to submit what they have, while Sellier would rather get an extension, both sides stop to consider: Would the additional time result in a much better paper? Or is it good enough?

Collaborating with event-timers also takes trust, Sellier says, because they are often vague on when something will get done. "It can be very hard to tell whether an event-timer is hard at work or scratching their belly, right until the output is there," the self-described event-timer says. In addition to managing uncertainty, "you need to get good at [reading] whether the person you are working with is hardworking and seriously invested in what you're doing," she says.

Collaborating across time styles has made their work better and more creative, they say, as they're able to harness the advantages of both clock time and event time.

And their findings have had a personal impact on Sellier. Now, if she's tardy, "I apologize because I'm aware of social norms," she says. "But I don't feel guilty about it."

This story is part of our periodic science series "Finding Time — a journey through the fourth dimension to learn what makes us tick."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.