Early is on time,” the hoary old saying goes, “and on time is late.”
Is that really true anymore? Is it polite to be punctual, or is it pathological? When does fashionably late tip over into simply rude? As always, the answer varies from case to case. But luckily, I have all the correct answers. Take a moment right now to learn the right time to show up to a few common situations, and adjust your smartphone calendars appropriately.
When I was a kid, my father drove my brothers and me crazy by getting us all to the airport two hours early for every family trip. In retrospect, I see why: with kids and baggage and actual paper boarding passes, one would want time to get one’s ducks in a row. But because there is literally nothing for a child to do in an airport, the process filled me with resentment, and when it was time for me to travel on my own, I over-corrected. I’d push it to the very last minute, I’d weave through traffic, I’d sweat bullets through the security line, and I’d board a moment before the cabin doors closed. It was exciting, but over time it became the wrong kind of exciting: it just became stress. After years of trial and error, I have concluded that it is better to be bored than to be nervous. Now I have fully become my father. I allow for extra TSA time, now that the whole world has signed up for Pre-Check. But more importantly, we live in the age of the Vino Volo, so I give myself at least an hour to indulge in an airport’s true purpose: guilt-free day-drinking and casual flirtation with business travelers.
THE RIGHT TIME IS TWO HOURS BEFORE DEPARTURE.
It is always the same: You feel pressure to show up early to a wedding, you hustle through hellos to distant family or college friends, you hurry to your seat... and then you sit there reading the program for twenty minutes. "Oh, they’re doing Psalm 128. Strong move." No wedding has ever run on time, but it doesn’t matter. It is part of the social contract: you must show up ahead of time. You will be bored in fancy clothing, but it is a kindness you must do the couple. If nothing else, it will keep a smile on their wedding planners' and mothers’ faces, which is what the event is really all about.
THE RIGHT TIME IS TEN MINUTES BEFORE THE SCHEDULED TIME.
You are always encouraged to show up fifteen minutes before your appointment time, so that you can take that filthy clipboard with the Lyrica-logo pen attached and fill out a million forms. But, especially while you’re young and your medical issues are relatively few, it turns out you can do that pretty quickly. Then you’re stuck on a leather couch watching House Hunters International until fifteen minutes after your appointment time. Nuts to that. You can push it a little bit here. Time spent in a doctor’s office is time spent contemplating your mortality, and it behooves you to minimize it.
THE RIGHT TIME IS FIVE MINUTES BEFORE THE SCHEDULED TIME, JUST IN CASE THERE’S SOME WEIRD ISSUE WITH YOUR INSURANCE.
It is tempting to show up very early to a rock show, so that you can get yourself a spot right up close to the stage, but here is a thing I have learned over hundreds of sweaty nights in noisy clubs: nobody needs to be right up close to the stage. It’s too loud, it’s too tight, and someone will always try to start a mosh pit, even if you’re seeing Bon Iver. I say play it cool, show up toward the end of the opener’s set, and hang near the back where there’s a bit more space. That way, if a very tall person or an idiot with an iPhone blocks your view, you can scooch yourself over a bit, and you don’t have to struggle your way through the crowd going to and from the bar. You surrender the opportunity to touch James Murphy’s hand or whatever, but that’s usually a pretty disappointing experience anyway.
THE RIGHT TIME, ALWAYS, IS 9:15 pm.
A person’s instinct is to show up for a job interview—or job interview’s free-spirited cousin, Audition—much earlier than is necessary. It’s natural; you want to show your potential employer what a self-starter and a go-getter you are. But of course, your potential employer won’t see any of this. Your potential employer is in a meeting, or busy in her office, or otherwise engaged. Your efforts at being a Bright Young Thing will be noticed, if at all, by only the person working the reception desk, and that person would rather be alone. Get to the block where the interview is five minutes early, walk your nerves off for four minutes, arrive at the office right on time.
THE RIGHT TIME IS THE SCHEDULED TIME.
Nobody wants to be in a work meeting. Everyone would rather be actually working at their job that they would already rather not be at. But meet we must, so let’s keep it pleasant for everyone involved. Show up on time, talk about last night’s episode of The Bachelor for exactly three minutes, get down to business, then return to your desk and complain about the meeting in Slack.
THE RIGHT TIME IS THE SCHEDULED TIME.
Here is a simple fact of life: your table is not quite ready. At the time of your reservation, the check has been dropped and people are lingering over coffee. You are welcome to have a drink at the bar, of course, and they’ll bring you right over. But then you get into the whole thing of transferring your bar tab to your table, and you fret over whether the bartender will get a tip if you do it that way, and you’re frustrated and guilty before your meal has even started. This is a sucker’s game. Retain the upper hand by showing up just a little after the time of your reservation, and then linger over coffee after your meal.
THE RIGHT TIME IS FIVE MINUTES AFTER THE SCHEDULED TIME. DITTO FOR HAIRCUTS, BECAUSE HOW MANY ISSUES OF LIFE & STYLECAN YOU BE EXPECTED TO READ?
DINNER WITH YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER’S PARENTS
One must fight dueling urges here: the desire to appear responsible, and the need to seem like a busy person. Will you give the future in-laws the impression that you’re the type who will get the family to the airport on time, or do you want them to picture you as the industrious provider? Here, you must defer to your honey, who has been putting on a show for his or her parents for far longer than you have.
THE RIGHT TIME IS WHATEVER YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER SAYS IT IS.
The distance between how eager one is and how eager one wants to appear is never more vast than on a first date. You are at your least cool, trying to play it your most cool. So it has always been, so it shall ever be. But for that first date, you must err on the side of artifice. If you are going to your date’s house to pick them up, you must arrive seven minutes late, because a person who shows up on time for a first date might as well be a serial killer. If you are meeting at the venue, the protocol gets a little trickier. You are both trying to be nonchalant, and only one of you will get to be the one who makes an Entrance. The one who makes an Entrance might as well be you. On the other hand, anything more than fifteen minutes late is rude to your date and risks forfeiting your table. I say show up at the restaurant twelve minutes late, and scan the place carefully, with the certainty that you are being watched. Really relish that entrance. This is your moment. You can be needy and annoying later in the relationship.
THE RIGHT TIME IS SEVEN TO TWELVE MINUTES AFTER THE SCHEDULED TIME.
Start times on party invitations are like speed limit signs on highways. They are there because you have to tell people something, but if you actually obey them, you ruin everything. An 8 pm start time means that nobody is allowed through the door until 8:45 at the earliest; you must allow your hosts enough time to get those last few details sorted out, and to prepare themselves emotionally for company. You can roll the dice and show up one hour before the end time, when the party may be in need of fresh meat, but you run the risk of entering a houseful of drunks with inside jokes you won’t understand. I say be on the earlier side. Follow your ear: You should hear light conversation through the door. If you do not, then you are the first to arrive, a thing nobody should ever be. Retreat to your car for a minimum of ten minutes, repeat as necessary.
THE RIGHT TIME IS ONE HOUR AFTER THE SCHEDULED TIME, UNLESS THE PARTY IS A CHILD’S BIRTHDAY PARTY, IN WHICH CASE YOU MUST SHOW UP THE MOMENT IT BEGINS, AND LEAVE JUST BEFORE YOUR CHILD VOMITS FUNFETTI CAKE INTO A BOUNCY CASTLE.
From: Esquire US