Punctual

Is Being on Time Actually Becoming Cool?

Signs point to maybe — and I think Gen Z is to thank for this cultural shift

Punctuality has always gotten a bad rap. Fascists are famous for keeping the trains running on schedule (or at least for taking credit for it). Famously on-time people often don’t do the concept any favors, either: Frosty Vogue editor Anna Wintour once walked out on a Marc Jacobs show that had the temerity to keep her waiting.

We tend to think of the habitually punctual as oppressively rigid, too uptight to be any fun — military-style hard-asses, waking up at 0500 to boil water or organize a toolkit, or something. On-time people are not just control freaks with no chill, they’re also the people who get really upset when you’re late, too, making them not just irritatingly punctual but irritatingly smug and tight-laced about it. If relaxed vibes are the best vibes, then it only follows that on-timers are hung-up OCD weirdos who can’t roll with life’s messiness.

Or are they?

Recently, a woman’s tale of her insanely over-eager punctuality sparked not irritation but endearing warmth from the public at large. When 21-year-old Scottish woman Laura MacLean admitted on social media that she was a tad early for her Skype interview with Microsoft, she wasn’t mocked so much as admired. The morning of the interview, she awoke hours early from a great night’s sleep to have a big breakfast, look the part and prep. Then, 11 a.m. came and went, and at 15 minutes past, she began to fret, so she emailed her recruiter to make sure there weren’t any technical issues.

Turns out, she was a bit early for the interview — by a full month.

Instead of eviscerating her, though, people thought it was pretty impressive.

Other people found it relatable:

Others saw it as hardly a shortcoming:

Interviewers said they’d be lucky to have such eagerness from most of their applicants:

And others thought her attitude about it was remarkable, too:

She even got other job offers:

So… wow. Is it possible that caring so much about something that you’d show up not just on time but early… is actually, maybe, finally… becoming cool?

This would be unusual. There’s no such thing as being fashionably on time, after all. No cool thing ever really starts as scheduled, either: Parties begin late. Rock shows are unpredictable. No anarchist would be caught dead sweating the clock. And even etiquette suggests that hosts of dinner parties should be laid-back enough to wait 20 minutes after the alleged start time to accommodate stragglers.

Applied to the job market, it sits in contrast to a steady stream of stories about coddled, job-hopping, utterly disengaged young people who dictate their terms to potential employers (and get them), whose parents accompany them to interviews.

Next to that, MacLean’s humble, earnest go-getterism for an actual, regular job looks refreshingly quaint. Clearing one’s schedule well in advance to crush it for a desired goal without apology, to cross all the t’s, to dot all the i’s, to be unassailably prepared for something you want and to move it swiftly to the top of your to-do list and never lose sight of it?

It’s radically cool.

Generation Z may simply be wired differently. They’re raised on the fast-paced, influencer-fueled hustle porn of digital media, and in the workplace, they place a high value on personal relationships vis-a-vis professional development. The kids have goals, dreams and a clear vision for getting there. They care about causes like equality and the environment. They give a shit, period. They know the planet is dying; they have no time to waste.

Don’t tell the late brigade. They’ve mounted a rather robust defense of their scattered, devil-may-care approach to human meetings. It’s not “rude and selfish,” late people insist, it’s just a time-management problem. “I’m just overwhelmed!” they cry. “I’m a creative! I hate being late!” (Sure, but not enough to stop.)

No matter how much you defend lateness as an issue about something other than liking the fact that people are sitting around waiting and can’t proceed without you, it’s still fundamentally a behavior that forces people to sit around and wait, unable to proceed without you. Examples of the cool late person abound: Marilyn Monroe, Kim and Kanye, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber.

Making people wait demonstrates a lack of respect for their time, a greater investment in the self. And because it’s associated so often with fame and power, it’s seen as part of the entitlement that comes with power and/or fame. Making people wait without any consequence is a luxury. In other words, late people have won the day by sheer force of their delayed presence. There’s no mistaking that regardless of what’s under the motive hood, it’s a power move up top.

In spite of how pervasive it feels for everyone to suddenly be unapologetically late all the time, statistics suggest that late people are in fact the minority. Only 20 percent of the public is chronically late, meaning 80 percent of us manage to show up where we’re supposed to, when we’re supposed to, no questions asked, no excuses given. That’s because while the late person is so busy being preoccupied with something or another, the punctual person is simply able to think ahead, guess how much time something will take, and plan accordingly.

I concede those qualities don’t sound exactly cool, but if the reaction to MacLean is indicative of anything, it’s that we’re at least inching toward respecting people who get shit done compared to people who don’t, regardless of how we might characterize it.

How about this: Being late to everything is generally attributed to being overwhelmed and overbooked (not cool!). Being on time is about scheduling one’s self within reason (cool!).

Late people are like hoarders who can’t part with any calendar event or menial errand; punctual people have, in essence, Marie Kondo-ed their calendars, eliminating what doesn’t matter, what doesn’t bring them purpose or joy. They have decluttered their schedule just as Kondo teaches to declutter the home. And for that, they are rewarded.

Case in point: Gandhi was a punctual man. He kept a pocket watch pinned to his dhoti at all times and believed that in essence, wasting time is a sin, so much so that he was known to apologize for wasting 60 seconds of someone’s time by keeping them waiting.

“You may not waste a grain of rice or a scrap of paper, and similarly a minute of your time,” he was said to have written. “It is not ours. It belongs to the nation and we are trustees for the use of it.”

What an idea: that time isn’t solely ours, it’s shared with the people we choose to spend it with. How radical that feels in the nose-to-phone era. I submit that punctual people have always intuitively understood this, and that someday we’ll get our proper recognition.

Of course, that might never be exactly cool. But it is, inarguably, at least more evolved.