• Some people are always late and those who are affected by it get increasingly frustrated, suspecting that it is on purpose

  • Psychotherapist and author Philippa Perry digs into what is beneath perpetual lateness, and what can be done to bring late-comers up to speed

  • If you would like to talk to a therapist about your behaviour patterns, find a therapist here

Latecomers like to pretend that their lack of punctuality is a funny charming quirk, but it's serious, it's a handicap.

Sometimes one of my psychotherapy clients might be late. “The tube got stuck in a tunnel for 20 minutes, I do apologise". It happens the once, I don't treat it as significant. But some clients are always late, maybe just five or ten minutes but always late, often panting when they get to the door. Then I will want to know what's behind the pattern of lateness, what's the meaning of it and what purpose it serves.

I was meeting a couple of friends at a lecture recently, Y and H. I was glad they were coming together because Y is always on time and H has pathological lateness issues. Y managed H beautifully and they were on the threshold of the venue, five minutes before it was due to start then H said, he would go in search of coffees for all of us. She gripped his elbow and steered him into the hall. He didn't want to be early. They took their seats next to mine as the lights went down.

When we all talked about it afterwards he said he really didn't know why he panics at the thought of being early. He's been late as a best man at a wedding, he was late for his own wedding. He has missed planes, he arrives half way through weekends away and it is though he prefers his car to have no petrol in it. What IS going on? He claims not to know. He denies he does it to make a grand entrance, he says that he is not fearful of arriving first. We are fond of him and thinking about it, as a friend-group we make allowances for him - treat him as a special case by telling him 7 when we mean 8.30 and not expecting him to be on time. Maybe this is the point - we move our usual boundaries for him because we find him worth it, despite his lack of punctuality. We treat him as a special person.

A common explanation for such lateness is that it is passive aggressive. This would mean that our friend H is motivated to tardiness because he considers his time and interests more important than the event or the people he has arranged to meet. This is the usual explanation that punctual people make for late people but reasons for lateness are generally more complex. In the case of H, Y and I don't experience our friend as an arrogant, selfish person. Perhaps it is the very opposite of arrogance that H suffers from? Rather than feeling like our time doesn't matter perhaps H feels that his presence matters so little to other people, or should matter so little to others that to actually show up and be present would be an act of arrogance on his part? It could follow that if we don't value ourselves, might we be unable to see how others could possibly value us, which could take away the point of turning up at all? That explanation might work for social situations but why miss planes, boats and trains? Perhaps H is unconsciously testing the dynamic? 'If I was really a worthy person, the train would wait for me?'

Maybe a time when a school bus did wait for him felt so affirming he has been looking unconsciously to recreate that sensation ever since? And as the plane invariably doesn't wait for him, his own insignificance is reinforced and therefore how could it matter to any one if he was late or even absent for a lecture or a social occasion. The trouble with ingrained habits that tend to work against us is that they may have no words to go with them, just urges. Although we can guess around why people might be habitually late, it can be hard to work out what is going on.

Sometimes it is possible to find out though: I remember a client trying to get to the bottom of her perpetual lateness. She remembered that when she was getting ready for school her mother always spent so long in the bathroom that she could not help but be late and when she reminded her mother she was making her late for school, her mother said that it didn't matter. In her mind somehow being on time for things had got mixed up with being disloyal to her mother. Once she had found this narrative for how she felt, she was no longer late. 

This reminded me of a man I once saw who kept thwarting his own attempts to succeed in his career and bad time keeping was a part of this. When we unpicked what success would actually mean he uncovered an old message from his father that people with money were evil, bad people. Faced with a choice of staying poor or being evil it was no wonder he kept up with the self-sabotage program.

Being late is a way of shooting oneself in the foot and we could pretend to ourselves if we are like that it's not our fault, that we are just terrible timekeepers and we can no more change that than we can our genes. And yet punctual people feel that they know that late people could decide to be on time and follow through. Early is okay, we can play with our phone and relax, it beats sitting on the edge of the seat in a bid to urge whatever form of transport we are using to get there sooner, using the phone to relay excuses and a new suggested arrival time.

As soon as mobile phones arrived, the late types got very much later. Late people often say to punctual people, hey! Relax! But there is nothing relaxing about knowing you are keeping other people waiting, or might miss a flight. It is far more relaxing to be early.

An unreasonably optimistic outlook about how long it takes to get from the office to the restaurant, especially if it's near, is another common reason for lateness. My book editor and I often lunch in a cafe next door to her office and she is always seven minutes late because she leaves at 1pm, as though she posses a magic teleporter and by the time she's waited for the lift and chatted to a colleague in the lobby, she'll be seven minutes late. I am considering getting there 7 minutes late myself, except that it would make me ill.

Another reason for the lateness habit is a general lack of mindfulness. We can get absorbed in what we are doing and don't check the time, or the map before we leave, or remember the meeting time correctly. Its not unlike in the same way we don't like to get up, we can put off going to bed. Stopping something we're absorbed in to do something else can be annoying. It takes some will-power to carry out. But if we don't carry it out when someone is waiting for us, we are in danger of being judged as selfish.

It is only when the latecomers make the active decision never to be late again that punctuality, not keeping other people waiting and time mindfulness becomes the norm. I'm choosing my words carefully here. There's a big difference between 'making a decision' and 'trying'. 'Trying' invariably means lying. Perhaps though, most latecomers prefer to carry on as they are? Or like H, just visualising being on time brings them out in a sweat. We humans are not logical beings although we can always find a logical sounding reason for not changing.

Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and the author of The Book You Wish You Parents Had Read

Further reading

Meghan Markle and the psychology of media backlash

The psychology of freedom

The psychology of money: what does your relationship to money say about you?

The psychology of home: why is it so hard to let go of clutter?

The psychology of trust