Punctuality: an untimely issue

Last month, I visited some friends at Williams before spending a year off-campus. As one might expect, a beautiful weekend at Williams is even more enjoyable when you’re not taking classes. Relief from the pressures of Williams academics forced me to confront a problem that almost never arises for any halfway normal Williams student: how can a young person find enough activities here to fill up four days?

My answer was to meet as many people as possible for coffee. Having condensed about a week’s worth of visits to Cold Spring time into a few days, a pattern commonly remarked upon became clearer to me than ever before: people at Williams are LATE. If you’ve spent even a few weeks on campus, I’m sure you’ve realized that showing up to any sort of club meeting or personal engagement on time is easily the most reliable way to waste five or ten minutes of your day.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Williams students have trouble with punctuality. In fact, it’d be shocking if anyone with as many overlapping commitments and academic demands as each of us shoulders was on schedule anytime after waking up.

Nonetheless, lateness abounds at Williams in epidemic proportions. For each instance of unavoidable lateness, there are usually two or three that arise simply because no one feels there is any reason to show up at precisely the appointed hour.

I’m not saying that Williams students are inconsiderate. That no one gets anywhere on time attests rather to an unfortunate matter of fact: there is actually no reason to be punctual. Punctuality is so rare that it just doesn’t make any sense to show up on time.

I tried fairly hard to be punctual for my first year or so, but it seemed that timeliness is often a waste of time. I’ve been a happier student since I started waiting until a few minutes after an appointment to start walking to it.

Yet I’m left uneasy by the understanding that I’ve alleviated my problem in a way that exacerbates it for others. Punctuality is a losing proposition only because everyone has already decided to be late. Because so many are reliably unreliable, even those who might value timeliness in isolation find that being late themselves will make them better off. If you consistently show up to the coffee bar on time, your only payoff will be a frequent opportunity to spend 10 minutes pondering the comparative merits of a small versus a medium coffee or reading about real estate in Southern Vermont.

Since most people seem to pick up on Williams College lateness pretty well, punctuality could be a non-issue. There’s no real problem if everyone is late by roughly the same amount of time, and Williams kids are a bit too smart to act like suckers for very long.

What concerns me is that the current punctuality atmosphere creates an asymmetry between the habits that help us get by at Williams and those we ought to have in the real world. Don’t get me wrong: one of the attractions of an isolated small college is that it provides insulation from the stresses that attend modern urban life. But sadly, the bad habits we acquire concerning little things like punctuality are notoriously difficult to break. Indeed, the casual attitude toward appointments I’ve cultivated here has lodged itself deep in my character. Nowadays, I’m not just late at Williams: I’m late everywhere.

Knowing that I’ll need to wrench myself out of habitual lateness in two years does not make me the least bit happy. Again, I’m all for an easygoing campus. If, however, it is the duty of a small college to nourish virtue among its students, this is one (admittedly minor) way in which we have wandered astray.

Because punctuality is a matter of personal conduct, the question of centralized intervention on the part of the administration is rather dicey. We should go no further than taking a small step or two to put fidelity to scheduling commitments on our personal agendas. The easiest step I can think of would be for the college to begin somehow recognizing excellent punctuality. We don’t need motivational speakers during First Days, but I can’t think of any reason not to hand out a class punctuality award at graduation. We could easily add an election for “Most Punctual” to the electronic ballots seniors already fill out for other superlative awards like class musician or class toaster.

A minimal response like this would be exactly proportionate to the magnitude of the problem. Issuing a punctuality award would do no more than to nudge each student’s priorities in the right direction. But no more is needed, let alone desirable.

My hope is that just writing a column like this one would at least put the matter of punctuality on people’s minds. I haven’t gone into any detail on the value of punctuality because it’s pretty self-evident: it’s not nice to keep people waiting.

A compulsive moralizer could probably produce a treatise or two on the matter, but that would just be silly (or demeaning to the concept of morality. . .take your pick). Being on time is just one of the little things that we could all do to make our community a bit nicer.

And if you’re suspicious that I’m trying to invent an honor I can effortlessly scoop up, just ask me to meet you for coffee and see who’s left holding the bag.