Habitual latecomers are often angry and intend to be tardy

Melinda Colby skulks into her office 20 to 45 minutes late. Rain or shine.

For social engagements, the 26-year-old usually shows up a half hour after the appointed time.


Reprimands from the boss, snide comments from colleagues, ultimatums from friends, nothing, it seems, compels Ms. Colby, an assistant editor in book publishing, to change her ways.

Like others who are habitually late, Ms. Colby comes armed with an arsenal of excuses. The train stalled, the bathroom ceiling leaked, Dad phoned long-distance as she was rushing out the door.


"I'm so sorry," she intones 30 minutes late for this interview.

Experts tell us that the perpetually unpunctual, whether TC consciously or unconsciously, intend to be late.

Compulsive tardiness ends friendships, sours love affairs and demolishes careers. Often there's no one reason for continually failing to be on time, but several overlapping motives. Some of them are complex, lurking in the murky caverns of a person's psyche.

"Sometimes it's an unconscious expression of anger and resentment," says Dr. Aaron Esman, a psychiatrist at New York Hospital's Cornell Medical Center. That hostility may be directed at the person kept waiting, but not necessarily.

People late every day for work may like their employer. But they may resent who or what the boss stands for. "Their boss may represent all bosses," says Mr. Esman. "By extension, their boss may represent their fathers or the entire world." The bottom line is that the belated resist yielding to authority.

Ms. Colby confesses she fits as snugly in this category as Michelle Pfeiffer in a cat suit. "I don't want to feel like a worker bee," she says. "I hate being controlled." Being late is Ms. Colby's way of indirectly expressing her anger.

But even she admits it's a no-win situation. "I end up having to work late to make up for coming in late."

Sometimes tardiness is a learned pattern of behavior. Consider Jessica Bowing. "Being on time just wasn't that important in our family," explains Ms. Bowing, a 30-year-old Manhattan resident. "If we were late, we were just late. No one stood around huffing and puffing about it."


Ms. Bowing's upbringing left her with a better-late-than-never approach to life. Someone should have told her that never It's not unusual for people who show up late for work every day to be prompt or even early for a rock concert.

late was better: Several years ago, she was fired from her job as a bank teller for consistently showing up after starting time.

Ms. Colby, too, is a product of her upbringing. For as long as she can remember, the women in her patrician Southern family have kept men waiting.

Deserved or not, women hold the reputation of being late more often than men. Consider the stereotype of the teen-age daughter entrenched in her bedroom, applying makeup, changing outfits repeatedly, while her nervous date waits downstairs with her parents.

"It's part of our culture for a woman to make the guy wait a bit," observes David Dean Brockman, a Chicago psychoanalyst. The perception is that a bit of tardiness adds mystique (fashionably late?), while being on time signals being overly eager.

This part of the feminine mystique may be rooted in the historical inequality of the sexes, some psychologists theorize. Traditionally, women were so impotent that making men wait was a means of gaining power, albeit fleeting.


Another primary cause of lateness is anxiety, says Dr. Martin Asnis, a psychiatrist at Manhattan's St. Luke Roosevelt Hospital.

People, whether they're aware of it or not, often delay being near the source of their anxiety. That's why even ambitious people will come to work late. "They may harbor fear about their performance or their capacity to achieve what they're striving for," says Mr. Asnis. So they adopt a self-defeating behavior and sabotage their careers.

Psychiatrists report that many of their patients routinely show up late for therapy sessions because of anxiety. Says Manhattan psychologist Pierre Haber: "They fear diagnosis."

One of the things that galls the people cooling their heels on street corners, in restaurants and in theater lobbies is that latecomers tend to be selectively tardy. It's not unusual for people who show up late for work every day to be prompt or even early for a rock concert.

Ms. Colby confesses she's always on time for the movies or theater, both of which she really enjoys.

In business, lateness may be used to assert power. Says one veteran labor organizer: "In contract negotiations, management always shows up late. It's a classic ploy."