The painfully bland hold music has already cycled through a couple of times.
Perhaps I made a mistake. Did I use an incorrect conference call code? I quickly recheck my calendar. No. This is the correct code.
“It’s only two minutes past the hour”, I say to myself, trying to resist my building frustration. “Yes, it’s annoying, but it’s hardly unusual. I may be the only person who has noticed the time, anyway.”
At regular intervals, the hold music is interrupted by a helpful female voice confirming the rather obvious fact that, “The leader has not yet arrived. Please stand by.”
Is my expectation of punctuality petty and quaint in the 21st century? Should I just accept its unspoken concept of acceptable lateness and its texted excuses?
Did I miss a cancellation notice? I search for emails from the meeting organizer. No. No cancellation message.
I start to wonder if, rather than making us more efficient, modern technology is killing the concept of punctuality. The cell phone hasn’t added more hours to the day or allowed us to be in two places at once; we just act as if it has. We are far more likely to walk out into traffic than ever before, though.
If we haven’t yet dealt a fatal blow to punctuality, the concept of personal accountability is certainly in critical condition.
Why call to apologize when you can hide behind a text message saying: “Be there in 5”?
Even then, of course, you and the person you’ve left waiting know you really mean at least 20.
As the hold music drones on, it is hardly surprising that I recall my years in Switzerland – that bastion of precision and timeliness.
I remember that being on time for a meeting in Zurich meant being outside of the meeting room five minutes before the meeting was due to start. The pleasantries, such as they were, were dispensed with quickly and efficiently, allowing the business purpose of the meeting to begin – precisely on time.
As an impartial observer, I always found unexpected entertainment when a conference call with the New York office was arranged. The Swiss contingent dutifully reported to a meeting room to join the call, someone opened the conference line … and we waited.
As the meeting start time came and went and the conference line remained eerily silent, Swiss brows furrowed above their designer glasses. The electronic beeps gradually announcing the arrival of our U.S. colleagues were rarely accompanied by an apology for being late. As a consequence, to the deeply affronted Swiss, even the most straightforward of meetings could become unnecessarily contentious.
If you think punctuality isn’t important, sit in a room full of Swiss people being made to wait.
I stop myself from humming along to the hold music. This was unacceptable three minutes ago; now it’s just rude. I contemplate hanging up, but will give the “leader” another minute.
I’ve reached the random thought stage now. What special joy awaits me in my fifties that is going to require longer nose hair? If I find myself between a rock and a hard place, should I just stay there? Adapting Carl Sandburg, I wonder if sometime they’ll arrange a conference call and nobody will come.
You’re not a rock star. The heavy anticipation of your arrival isn’t going to cause us to wildly applaud when you show up 30 minutes late. You’re not a movie. We’re not sitting through twenty minutes of commercials waiting for the main feature to begin. You’re just wasting our time.
Now, I realize that even the most punctual person is not immune to the unexpected delay. It is how we deal with it that makes the difference. We call ahead; the alternative arrangements we make are on your terms – and we apologize for the inconvenience we’ve caused.
Shortly after I once again hear the instruction to “please stand by”, the music stops. A chorus of electronic beeps erupts; each one noisily proclaiming the impatience of an attendee.
“I’m not sorry I’m late. I was speaking to people who are far more important than you and I didn’t really care that I was making you wait. I’m a very busy person, so count yourselves lucky that I showed up at all.”
He doesn’t say that, of course, but that’s what he means. No one else knows – or cares – how busy he is. All they see is disrespect.
Punctuality is not the quaint relic of a forgotten time. It is an obligation; a discipline of responsibility, respect and courtesy.
Each time we’re late for a meeting; each time we leave too late to get to our destination on time; each time we send a perfunctory text message (remembering to blame the traffic, of course) to say we’re running late, personal accountability is dealt another blow.
And the first step on the path to personal accountability is punctuality.
Yet, if you still insist on being one of those people who is just too busy, too important to be on time for anything, at least give us better hold music. Please.
“The while we keep a man waiting, he reflects on our shortcomings” – French Proverb
8th July 2015