I had a discussion yesterday with a couple of friends over lunch, about people who are chronically late. I don’t mean 2-3 minutes late; I mean a half-hour or longer late. This discussion was triggered when a fourth friend who was supposed to join us for lunch, showed up almost an hour late. This apparently is the norm for him.

We all stayed longer at the restaurant than anticipated, because we wanted to give him a chance to eat. I reflected later that in the end, he got everything done that he needed to do and the others wound up being less productive in what we had to do in order to accommodate him.

I’ve had a number of friends who used to be chronically late, and in the end I had to speak with them in tough terms to get them to respect my time. That, plus always leave any appointment with them if they were more than 5 minutes late (if they didn’t call with one hell of a good reason beforehand, that is).

Why are some people chronically late? Of course, in practical terms it’s usually because they cram too much into their agenda in an overambitious assumption of their own abilities. But, I think in fairness, most of us do that, yet somehow manage to shift things around in order to be generally on time.

In my opinion, chronic lateness, like picky eating, has an important psychological dimension:

1. It may be an expression of a profound narcissism whereby other people’s time and feelings are seen as unimportant. For narcissists, others are simply an accoutrement, a decoration, of their own lives since the world revolves around them. Interestingly, narcissists are very good at showing up on time for any meeting that will benefit them. That’s a pretty good clue; if they’re always late with you but on time for business appointments.

2. It may be an expression of a powerful need for control (and thereby a profound sense of insecurity). By having others wait for you for extended periods of time you get the satisfaction of asserting your own importance and control over others; like making the monkeys dance at the circus. Picky eaters also often fall into this dimension, making others “dance” in order to accommodate their peculiar idiosyncrasies.

3. It may reflect a deep need for love that isn’t being met elsewhere. In a bizarre way, having others wait for you beyond the normal constraints of courtesy, shows that they must really, really care about you. Once again, this is also very common for picky eaters who demand that you show your love for them by cooking something in a particular way.

Understanding where the person is coming from is important for the future of your relationship. If the person is very high on the Narcissism dimension, you may want to rethink what you’re getting out of the relationship. Strong narcissists make for very poor long-term partners and friends.

If the person is very insecure and/or has a strong need for love, you may have to redirect their behavior in more appropriate ways. These people are worth “having the talk”. Tell them that their lateness is highly insulting and offensive to you. Back it up by leaving if they’re more than a couple of minutes late. After a few such experiences, you’ll know who you’re dealing with.

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