A Reformed Late Person’s Guide to Being on Time

Time has become fluid in the pandemic. Except when there’s a Zoom meeting.

Photo by Aleks Marinkovic on Unsplash

The other day I had a meeting on Zoom and one of the participants was three minutes late. The other person in the meeting and I filled those three minutes puzzling over what calamity must have occurred to cause this lateness. Was the missing person in some peril? Was he… dead? The meeting was at 11! It was already 11:02! 11:03! Should we call someone? Alert the authorities?

This is a state of anxiety specific to this moment in time. In the history of human meetings — that is, human, in-person, flesh-to-flesh meetings, in a real place, in the real world— no meeting has ever begun on time. Getting together is an imprecise science. To begin with, there’s the issue of traffic. The time it might take to get from Point A (your location) to Point B (the meeting) is infinitely variable, even if you calculate carefully. No one wants to be ridiculously early, so you strategize how to arrive close — or close-ish — to the appointed hour. But, goddamn it, you get stuck behind a garbage truck. Or you realize you have to stop for gas. Or you have trouble parking. Waze warns you of police activity. You take a detour. You arrive and then need a few minutes in the parking lot to refresh your lipstick and fluff your hair. That’s ok, since no one really expects to start the meeting exactly at 11, right?

Even if the meeting is taking place IN YOUR OFFICE, you probably will get a call at the last minute or you decide to grab coffee or use the restroom. The meeting at 11 becomes the meeting for which 11 is the rally point, the aspirational timeline everyone thinks about and swings at but doesn’t really expect to hit. The lateness buffer that seems expected, that doesn’t even merit comment, is fifteen minutes. No one blows into a meeting ten minutes late spewing apologies and excuses, because it doesn’t really seem late. Only if the clock has creeped past the quarter-hour does anyone feel obligated to explain why they’ve just showed up. Besides, most meetings begin with all that stage business — the fetching of water, the shuffling of chairs, the inquiring after everyone’s weekend. No need to really be there at 11, since there will be at least ten minutes of throat-clearing before getting down to the real thing. In fact, it might seem even rude to start an in-person meeting exactly at the time for which it’s called, wouldn’t it? Anyway, how do you measure the moment to consider the meeting commenced? There’s no tripwire. Do you consider the meeting beginning as people file into the room? When they sit down? When someone starts to speak?

There is also the factor of the ability to do the constant reset. The meeting is at 11 and you’re running a tad behind — damn traffic! — so you text your colleagues and request a bigger buffer. Totally to be expected! After all, the meeting time of 11 is notional, rather than actual. It is the time at which those attending the meeting will confront the idea of it and then approach as they see fit. You use your texting to adjust the time bit by bit, like an overly snug waistband, and the fact that you can text and give notice of the adjustment means it’s cost-free (or so it seems). There’s a reason “Running a few minutes late” is a pre-programmed text on most phones.

Zoom or conference-call meetings, however, are not squishy. The little clock on your computer ticks down from 10:59 to 11, and the meeting commences. You know exactly when it begins because… it begins. There’s no dog-ate-my-homework excuse for being late. How long does it take to walk from your bed to your computer? There’s no garbage truck, no parking problem, no plausible excuse for lateness. The precision is absolute, explicit. Everyone has a clock (if you can have a Zoom meeting, you have a computer; ergo, you have a digital clock STARING YOU IN THE FACE). And the meetings do, indeed, start when they start. There’s nothing else to do. There’s no fussing with the coffee machine or passing out of pens and paper or private back-channel chitchat. I suppose you could get on the Zoom and just breath at each other for a few minutes, but would you want to? Everyone in a Zoom meeting wants to log on, attend to the tasks at hand, and get the hell off as quickly as possible.

I have spent part of my life as a late person; I was the kind of person who believed traffic would favor me, the parking spot would appear magically, that I could drive across Los Angeles averaging sixty miles an hour even in the middle of the day. I had a dread of being early — I don’t know why, but it made me feel embarrassed and vulnerable in a way being late never did. I preferred being in a mad tizzy rushing into a meeting rather than sitting pallidly in an empty conference room, waiting for everyone else. Some leftover junior-high-school-cafeteria anxiety, maybe? I dunno. All I know is that I was pretty reliably fourteen minutes late to every meeting I ever had. And then the pandemic came, and the cold fact of real time and meetings that had a start that was as decisive as horses breaking out of the gate at the Kentucky Derby changed me completely. I hover on the Zoom start screen at 10:57 and watch as the number flip to 11:00. Zoom helpfully counts the minutes down with me. Your meeting starts in 2 min. 1 min. NOW.

I wonder, when we return to something resembling our before lives, if we will return to the sloppy, slippery notion of time, or whether this meticulousness will stay with us. I think I’m reformed. I’ll see you at 11.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)

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