Lying is OK if you’re early

Last week I was getting a lift to a funeral with some colleagues. I stayed with them the night before. We’d agreed a departure time of 8:30am a few days beforehand. The night before, there was some discussion about whether 8:30am was early enough, but we decided that it was.

The next morning, there was a bang on my bedroom door. We were leaving early. Everybody rushed for the shower at once. By 7:30am the person who’d changed the plan was sitting in the car, visibly fuming at the delay. We finally left at 7:45am with dire warnings of how we were going to miss the funeral.

We arrived in town nearly an hour early for the funeral, but at least we got to go to a cafe and have breakfast. The person who’d moved the times forward wouldn’t eat anything. He was still cross about our “lateness” in leaving and kept saying “We were lucky with the traffic, that’s all.”

The following day I’d arranged for a friend to drop something off at my house. We agreed 6pm. She arrived just after 5pm when I was buried in work and the house looked like a tip.

This morning I had a work phone call scheduled for 11am. At 10am I started making notes for the call, but he rang less than five minutes later. I think I would have made a better contribution if I’d been better prepared, but I felt embarrassed about admitting I wasn’t ready for the call.

Why does being early make it OK to be unreliable? In my worldview, if you set a time you should do your best to stick to it. If you manage to be earlier than that time, you’re not “winning” in any way; you’re just inconveniencing other people and being rude and dishonest into the bargain.

I’m not talking about “early” in the sense of getting your essay handed in early, or finishing your day’s work early. If you achieve something ahead of schedule, good for you (although don’t fall into the trap of thinking it increases the work’s intrinsic value). I’m talking about when you agree a time for a departure, a meeting, a phone call or whatever with someone else, then ignore the agreed time in favour of your own, earlier time. It happens to me so often that I’ve nicknamed it the “early-bird bait-and-switch” but I’ve only been moved to blog about it now because it’s happened to me three times in less than a week.

Maybe I should have prepared for today’s phone call sooner. But where do you draw the line? If I “should” be prepared for an 11am call by 10am just in case the other person rings an hour early, should I also be prepared at 9am? 8am? 7am? 11pm the previous night?

It all gets to me because I try so damn hard to be reliable, to stick to arrangements, to not fuck up too much. I use productivity systems and automated reminders, because I’m so terrified of dropping a ball. So of course it winds me up when I’m finishing a phone call and then hear the alarm I set to remind me that the call is about to start. Or when the alarm I set to wake me up goes off several miles into a journey. If you suddenly change our plan by being super-early, my ability to stick to that plan has been stolen from me by your inconsiderate behaviour. You are transforming me from a calm, reliable person into a flustered flake with wet hair, a messy house and no notes. And of course I’m going to hate you for that.

We have this wonderful thing called consensus reality, where (almost) everybody can agree what time it’s supposed to be on different parts of the planet. It’s an amazing tool for planning things that involve more than one person. But when we have a cultural assumption that it’s OK to start things earlier than agreed, the point of agreeing a time is lost and we lose the value of one of the most basic achievements of human civilisation.

(Don’t get me wrong – late is rude and annoying too. And vaguely ethno-cultural excuses like “Indian timings” drive me crackers.)

I asked just now where we should draw the line. Why not just have a consensus to take agreed times literally? So 2pm means 2pm and not 1:30pm or 2:30pm and not 1pm or 3pm either.  God knows, sticking to an agreed time is hard enough even when you’re trying your best. I’m often guilty of unintended earliness (and plenty of unintended lateness) myself. People are always going to miss buses, have childcare emergencies, get their dates mixed up, allow too much or too little time for the journey and so on.

But a lot of irritating, stressful earliness isn’t caused by mistakes – it’s caused by people thinking they have cultural approval to abruptly move the goalposts. We need to withdraw that approval so we can start taking agreed times literally again.

In the car on the way to the funeral, we made a point of saying “Oh, look, it’s 8:30am. We should be setting off round about now!” and giving the early-bird meaningful looks. I think that’s the way forward. Don’t politely wave aside the agreed time as you would if someone was late or early through no fault of their own. Push back. Argue for a consensus reality that makes sense.

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