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?
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.