You Need Help: My Friend Is Late to Everything

Q:

Hi there, I moved to a new city about a year ago and, as is usually the case when I move somewhere, friends have come and gone. I’ve made one really great friend, but there’s a wrench in our relationship: our incongruous approaches to timeliness. He has been, without fail, late to everything we’ve ever planned. His tardiness ranges from one to three hours. Sometimes, I wait an hour and politely ask “what’s your ETA?” and he replies with “Sorry, I’m just going to do my hair and 15 other things and I’ll be on my way!” Recently, he and I were studying at his place and I got hungry so I said “I’m going to go to the grocery store next door, I’ll be back in 5.” I would have been back in five, except he wanted to join. First, he had to change his contact lenses and fix his hair, and then he started telling me this story about his mom that I didn’t pay much attention to because I was annoyed. About 10 more things and 25 minutes later, we finally left his place. At the store, he spent about 30 minutes trying to decide on a snack to purchase. I’m trying to be respectful of his idiosyncrasies, but I’m a very structured person and need him to try and follow a schedule. What makes everything worse is that he apologizes ALL the time – every other word he says is “sorry” – and he is aware that his tardiness is a problem. I’m just not sure if he’s working on it. I’ve been told I can be abrasive, and I’d really like to avoid conflict since he’s is one of my closest friends here, so I’m not sure how to move forward. Advice?


A:

I say this with immense empathy and as someone who is usually early if not on time to social events and who gets anxious when others are late: Your friend is never going to change.

Okay, that’s extreme. Sometimes people do change. And there are a few easy and reasonable changes that your friend might be able to make if you talk to him, which I’ll get into in a bit.

But it sounds like you’re expecting — or hoping for — a major change that I doubt is going to happen. First of all, I just don’t think people can change habits very quickly. Second of all, a failure to do things on time is not a moral shortcoming. It’s an inconvenience to be sure! And sometimes it can be straight up rude. But you also KNOW this about your friend. It’s not something he’s hiding from you or that comes as a surprise. And again, that doesn’t make it any less annoying, but your friend isn’t actively harming you. The conflict mostly amounts to you having different priorities, which happens in friendships all the time. You might be a very structured person, but you can’t expect others to be.

It’s possible that his approach to time isn’t something he has complete control over or awareness of. People’s brains work in different ways, and all relationships require navigating major differences. It sounds a little bit to me like you wish your friend were more like you, but part of the beauty of friendships is connecting with people who think, live, and act differently than we do. It’s ultimately up to you to decide how damaging this incongruous approach to timeliness really is. Is it making it so that you don’t want to be friends with him anymore? I’m guessing not, because if you thought the friendship was worth throwing in the trash, you probably wouldn’t be writing this letter looking for a magical solution.

That said, I do think compromise is important in all relationships. And I do think there are some reasonable things that you can ask of your friend. First and foremost, I think you need to ask him to always be honest with you. When he’s running late, ask him for his best approximation for how late he’s going to be. If he gives a rambling, unclear answer, ask for specificity. You mentioned that you have sent polite texts asking for an ETA, but it’s time to be more direct (which is not necessarily impolite!). If you’re meeting with him somewhere you have to travel to and don’t want to be waiting around, contact him before heading to the place and ask when he reasonably thinks he’ll be there and specify that you don’t want to leave your place until you have a better idea of when he’ll arrive. Expecting honest and clear communication from a friend is totally reasonable. If you have a five-minute errand you want to run, be clear about that, too. It’s okay to say that you want to run an errand by yourself.

I know that you want to avoid conflict, but sometimes that can turn into avoiding having conversations altogether, and this is an instance where I absolutely think you need to talk to your friend. Approach him from a place of empathy. Instead of saying “your tardiness is a problem,” consider something more specific like “sometimes when you’re three hours late to things, it feels like you don’t respect my time” or “I just would appreciate more communication if you’re going to be late to something so I can plan accordingly.” Be an active participant in the compromise: Express some of your needs to your friend, but also be open to your friend’s perspective. Even though he does apologize a lot, it’s possible that he doesn’t understand how much this really affects you.

I don’t think your friend is going to magically start being on time in the way that you would like him to be, but I do think that your differences will be easier to manage if there’s some communication and some compromise. Friends do things that annoy us! Not everyone will have the exact same priorities as we do. So instead of hoping that your friend will change, try to figure out how to best co-exist despite the differences.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is currently a fiction editor at TriQuarterly. Her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Catapult, and The Offing. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 272 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. I would also consider the cause of his tardiness. If it stems from an inability to plan tasks or manage time, the solutions would be different.

    I have ADHD and some other mental health issues and that means that I’m often late. I don’t want to be, and I try my hardest to be on time. Usually it’s under 15 minutes. There are alarms set all day long and I have help managing my planner. If I’m so depressed I can’t get out of bed, leaving the house on time and showered is like climbing Mount Everest.

    If something like this is the case with your friend I’d offer them help to be on time. Maybe a different meeting time, a different location, making sure they remember the appointment, calling them 15 minutes before they need to leave, etc. You may never change them, but it’s not because they don’t want to change.

    If he’s hours late despite being able to be on time, that’s pretty rude. I would absolutely explain to him that this behavior is damaging to your relationship. Honestly and clearly. Speak in I scentences. (e.g. “I feel like you don’t care about me”) Explain that you don’t want to be abrasive or pick a fight, or whatever it is that you are afraid of, but that you want to talk about this openly.

    The words say he’s sorry, but his actions don’t. I would offer him my help with planning strategies or dealing with any issues that may be interfering with changing his behavior. Make clear appointments (not somewhere in the afternoon, but 3 to 5 pm, and go home if that time is passed).

    If he doesn’t want to change, or can’t change, it’s up to you how you want to deal with it from there. Accept him as is, or change your meeting habits in a way that it doesn’t matter what time he shows up.

    You could always go for the passive agressive route and give him a watch for the hollidays ;)

    Good luck!

    • This! I also have ADHD and a friend with ADHD who absolutely used to be hours late. My help wasn’t super effective tbh, but a diagnosis and medication and some CBT really did help. She can usually get almost everywhere on time or about 30 mins late max, which when you know where she was coming from this is huge. The compromise that happened before her treatment helped was doing things together that didn’t require a time frame, like me going to her place to hang out. Good luck! I don’t think your friend is necessarily being rude or not concerned about the problem fwiw.

  2. Oh, I have been on both sides of this! Different branches of my extended family have wildly different attitudes to time and vastly different definitions of “on time.” I like schedules and I also run about 5 – 20 minutes late so sometimes I’m the annoying late one and sometimes I’m the “WTH are you?! I’ve been waiting for an hour!” one.

    My favorite cousin is similar to the LW’s friend. It’s taken us years to figure out how to spend time together successfully. It’s also taken years of conversations to learn to respect if not completely understand where the other one is coming from. It turns out that following a schedule increases her anxiety but not following one increases mine. Being stood up also increases my anxiety and makes me feel unloved so I had to get brave and let her know when she hurt my feelings.

    What works for us is what I call scheduled spontaneity. Back when we could get together, I had a twice monthly alert in my calendar to invite her to hang out / co-work at a local coffee shop. It was spontaneous to her because she got my text in the morning asking her if she wanted to get together that afternoon but it was it my calendar. And if she said no, it was low stakes enough that it was not a big deal. If I still wanted to go work in the coffee shop by myself, I could. Which brings me to the other key thing I figured out – we don’t do things together where my day will be ruined if she bails on me or is really late.

  3. Yesss, this happens for me a lot, where I am the on-time/structured one. Two things helped me when managing this!

    1. Understanding the chaos/anxiety/reality of the other person. Like in the comment above, it’s the case for my friend that she *can* be on time, but basically will be in high-anxiety mode for hours beforehand to make that happen. Even chronically late folks usually can figure it out for the sake of a flight or important doctor’s appointment, but sometimes that is so high cost for them, it’s not something I want to ask them to do for me. Additionally, hyper-focus on “timeliness” is a virtue of white supremacy. This isn’t to say we all just throw out our clocks and calendars, but it does help me remember that lots of ways of relating to time are valid, and mine is currently culturally more supported and emphasized as “good”. So…

    2. Changing how we made plans. The key for me is making plans that allow me to not sit around waiting for her. Now I say things like “Sure, come over anytime between 4 and 6 in advance of dinner. If you aren’t here by 6:15, that’s when I will start feeling agitated and anxious”. And then I do my best to not feel agitated and anxious until 6:15 (this is getting easier with time!). Then when she does show up according to what we agreed on, I make sure to front my warm and happy feelings (even if I was hoping she’d show up at 5 so we had more time and she basically always shows up at 5:57 — she still did what we agreed to!). Choosing to pick her up on the way to something or just not making plans that have a specific timeline (like going to a movie, back when that was a thing ppl did) has also helped a lot.

    • Additionally, hyper-focus on “timeliness” is a virtue of white supremacy.

      Agreed, so hard. And also a virtue of ableism, and both of those things seem to hard for people to process.

      Choosing to pick her up on the way to something or just not making plans that have a specific timeline (like going to a movie, back when that was a thing ppl did) has also helped a lot.

      I’ve found this helps a lot, too, in my own life/with my own timeliness issues.

    • This isn’t to say we all just throw out our clocks and calendars, but it does help me remember that lots of ways of relating to time are valid, and mine is currently culturally more supported and emphasized as “good”.

      Yes.

      I think it may help the LW to redefine or reframe the problem. The problem isn’t that their friend is late, the problem is that the two of them have really different approaches to time and how can they make it work together?

    • I definitely agree that timeliness is relative: my maternal grandparents come from one culture where an hour late is on-time, one where 5 minutes early is on time, and spent most of their adult lives in a country where 15 minutes late is the polite choice. There are lots of very funny (and some less funny, tbh) stories that have come out of that.

      But that said, there’s a certain point at which a person who doesn’t respect their friends time just doesn’t respect that friend. The OP mentioned that this friend is regularly 3 hours late. Three hours is not a small thing. If the on-time (or just less late) friend has to go back to work, pick up kids, let their dog out, has concert tickets, or just wants to go home and nap in a couple of hours, the person who is 3-hours late is making it clear that they don’t value the rest of their friend’s life.

      Yes, everyone’s brain processes time differently. I’m a terrible procrastinator myself and I’m usually at least 15 minutes late when I’m meeting at someone’s house. But if we have a reservation somewhere where we’ll lose our slot, or they’re going to have to wait outside in the snow, or I know we only have a couple of hours before they have a family obligation, I pull it together. Because to not to so would make me a crap friend.

      All that said, yeah, if they’re always just hanging out at someone’s house with no later plans/obligations, the letter writer should relax about it. If they’re both not that busy outside of each other it’s not worth the stress on the friendship.

      I’m just saying that if they’re outside shivering in the cold, or missing out on other parts of their lives because a two-hour dinner turned into a five-hour event, that’s a friendship that may not be worth the cost, you know?

  4. I am that friend. I try hard not to be, but my brain just rambles and meanders and bops around and hyperfocuses, then shifts focus, then rambles some more…. It’s really hard.

    With my closest/longest friends, we’ve figured out a compromise — instead of planning to meet somewhere at a specific time (ie, we’re having dinner at 6, meet here), we decide where to meet, in the eveningish, and they have me text once I’m actually on my way. Since I’m just late, not a habitual flake in a no-show way, they can trust I’ll be there within our predetermined window and I’ll let them know once I’m going.

    But I hate, hate hate being that person.

  5. This is such good advice! A couple additional thoughts:

    Sometimes people speak aspirationally. They say what they wish or hope for. There are a couple people in my life who sometimes don’t know they’re doing this, and sometimes aren’t able to acknowledge they’re doing this even when I ask them directly about it. Expecting honest and clear communication from a friend is always reasonable, but not always realistic. One thing I figured out for myself was that when I’m talking to someone who I know tends to do this, I can give myself permission to not believe what they say. So like, if they say they will be over at around 7:00, I can plan that they might arrive anywhere from 7:30-8:00, even without them acknowledging that that’s probably when they’ll arrive. And if they arrive at 7:05 and I’m not ready, I get to ask them to wait for me, just like I’ve often waited for them.

    This ties in well with the advice a couple other commenters have given: Find a way to set up plans such that if/when your friend isn’t on time, you don’t have to waste your time waiting.

  6. I had/have quite a few friends like this, and it was super frustrating! It felt like my time (and the time we had together) wasn’t valuable to them, and that hurt! It was also really clear that if I wanted these people in my life, I was going to have to make a lot of leeway for them and come up with strategies so I didn’t feel like the 30 minutes to several hours were wasted.

    Now, my pet peeve was not knowing how long I had, less than the lateness – so when people were honest and realistic about how long they’d take to get there, I’d have no problem. You’re stuck on the train 45 minutes away with no idea when you’ll get moving? Fine, I’ll go kill an hour, or we can talk about rescheduling. But anyone who pulled the “15 minutes!” when they haven’t even left the house? Nope. I’m not even sorry, I don’t make more plans with those folks. That’s not even giving me a chance to use my time well, and that’s rude.

    One of the strategies that worked well for me was for me to make plans with a few late friends and one or two punctual friends. That way, the punctual folks got in some bonding time, and didn’t feel like we were just standing around waiting for the tardy people.
    We’d specifically pick places near something else we wanted to do. Say there was a museum night we wanted to go to, we’d find a cute bar or bakery near by and have a pre-game, essentially. Or, maybe we’d go to a museum before we hit up a bar!

    Its also a great way to ease some friends together and see how they click; without them feeling like they have to stay the whole time.

    I started doing that even when I wasn’t with another punctual pal – just using that 3 hours to do something I’d wanted to do, but hadn’t made a priority. I’d read a lot or journal or check out a local bookstore!

    But that all comes down to your friend honestly communicating about the length of time it’ll be before he’s at a place. And the best way to do that is to be very clear that you’re not mad, you’ll be less upset about the lateness if you just know; and that that’s what you want as an apology – clearer communication.

  7. Chiming in with all of these great comments to say that the only strategy that worked for me, in maintaining valuable friendships with dearly beloved people who absolutely do not have the same approach to time as me, was to re-cast my perspective of their habits. I had to drop the judgement, learn to compromise with them, and/or use mental work-arounds.

    With one friend who is almost always several hours late, I started to suggest we meet at 4 if I wanted her to show up by 6, and to not plan things that we had to be on time for. With another friend who loves to make big plans but frequently changes her mind or runs out of momentum as the time approaches, I have learned to think of the plans as hypothetical fun possibilities, but also to have a backup plan in case they don’t transpire. I also happen to know that these are both people with traumatic histories and a lot of mental health struggles that I’m sure are partly at the root of their relationship with time.

    Ultimately these approaches have not only helped maintain our friendships, they have also helped me learn to undo a bit of my own anxiety and stress around schedules. So now instead of sitting around feeling frustrated, I mentally thank my friends for their role in my personal growth.

  8. I had a girlfriend who was always late – to the point that if I wanted to be someplace at 8, I’d tell her we had to be there at 7. That way, we’d only be a little bit late. She had body dysmorphic disorder. It took her hours to make herself look acceptable to her. I would have stayed with her and worked it out, but she was pretty awful in other ways. Abusive.
    Another girlfriend flat out told me at the beginning – “I have to be precise about time all day at work. I don’t do that when I’m off.” She was never “late” because I knew she’d show up when she showed up and planned accordingly.

    • My girlfriend is like this. She was two + hours late to my birthday dinner date this year, ouch.

      As others have commented, the best thing I’ve been able to figure is if I’m expecting her over, pleading with her to just let me know when she leaves her house, that way since she lives 25 minutes away I know I can do activities in at least 25 minute increments around my house & not miss her.

      Also if I have food based plans I always eat something light before whatever plan I have with her so I’m not starving while waiting for her to be ready.

  9. My ADHD acquaintances and friends can be like this, too.
    The magic of having an ADHD friend/partner is the spontaneity, randomness, wonder and sheer aliveness that you feel around them.
    The downside would be the lack of reliability, constancy and clear communication.
    It can really hurt sometimes, to be subject to the emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows.
    I’ve had to learn to communicate myself clearly so as to achieve some degree of constancy and clarity in these friendships.
    Thanks for this article :)

  10. My dad was like this. I spent a lot of time as a kid sitting in the car with my mom and sister, waiting for my dad to do all kinds of chores that did not really need to be done before we left but he couldn’t leave until they were done. She regularly threatened to leave without him, but we never did. If we really needed to be somewhere at a certain time, she would tell him the time was an hour earlier than it really was and then we would be on time.

    As others have suggested, I would have an honest conversation with your friend, but he may not be able to fully control his lack of timeliness so it may be up to you to engineer ways for him to be on time or for you not to be disappointed if he is late.

  11. I support all the great comments above – not everyone is able to control their tardiness, and that’s perfectly valid. There are many creative strategies two people can use to negotiate their different relationships with time.

    There’s something I want to add, though. This advice-seeker seems to really want to keep the friendship, but in case people are reading the comments seeking a different kind of validation: It’s perfectly all right to want to end a friendship because the other person has a trait or quirk that irritates you. Even if you feel on some level that you should learn not to be bothered by it, maybe it bothers you anyway and you can’t help it, and it interferes with your enjoyment of the friendship, and that’s fine. We all have annoyance boundaries. As with dating, some friendships just aren’t meant to be.

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