A critical look at the culture of tardiness in our society.
By Rev SEIK PITOI
LADIES and gentlemen, sorry we are running late by three hours. Many of our special guests haven’t arrived yet so please be patient. You know, this is PNG time!”
That last sentence was supposed to be funny, to generate a bit of laughter from those who decided to be punctual. If you are one of those who came on time and are sweltering in the heat waiting for whoever it is, you will not find that amusing!
Being on time is demanded in today’s world. Employees will also know that you will be assessed for attendance and punctuality at work.
It’s not only attending work but when we saunter in that is also noted. On the flipside, we have those who come too early. For instance, the birthday party starts at 7pm but some guests roll up at 5.30pm – while the hosts are still setting up! That is rude. And then again, we have that new word in our vocabulary – “ish”. Like, “Let’s meet at say, 10ish?” That means, around 10 (give or take some minutes before or after)!
Arriving late for a function or an appointment happens in life. I am sure every one of us have been guilty of that at one time or another. But being always late is the problem. In fact, it is a universal problem, not just in PNG.
In this fallen world of fallible creatures like us, our efforts to be on time are greatly hampered by our cultural attitudes. As Melanesians, we are by nature a laid back people. In our ancestral days, life was never dictated to by time.
Laid back people in fast-paced world
We did things by seasons, and out of necessity. The sun, moon and stars led us in maritime navigation, seed planting and harvesting, and in all aspects of life. We observed weather patterns and prepared well for times of famine and abundance. We had no concept of time as we know it today. These days, we are driven by time. And when we fail, we say, “You know, it’s PNG time”. This phrase has become a convenient excuse for our tardiness in places of work, worship and learning.
So how should we deal with the issue?
Let me begin with a disclaimer. I am no angel when it comes to this topic. I am a fellow perpetrator, just like you! We all at times have been late, sometimes very late. There are many reasons for that – some more genuine than others. In this article, we will not be concerned about once in a while lateness. We will talk instead about chronic lateness and see it from a Christian perspective.
There are times when unforeseen situations happen, causing us to be late. For example, as you are about to leave for church, you hear that your elderly neighbour tripped and fell, seriously injuring himself. His wife begs you to drive him to the hospital for treatment. Instead, you pray, “Lord, please take care of this situation, I am going to church now because I don’t want to be late, so please heal this man”, and off you go! This calloused attitude is certainly unchristian. To help this man is to carry out your Christian duty which would impress God more than your religious time-keeping!
Some popular excuses for lateness we use are: Caught in heavy traffic (my favourite), had a last minute visitor, got a flat tyre, or, I didn’t see the time properly! These may be genuine excuses, if they are true. Conversely, for church goers, we salute people like nursing mothers, the physically disabled and their care-givers, or old people who make it a point to attend church services, even if they’re late. They are certainly excused because of their situations. God sees and knows the conditions of their hearts (1 Sam 16:7).
But when the respected people in secular society and the church are constantly late, giving no apology for it and forcing people to wait for them, they have already failed in their responsibilities. I recently heard about an MP who had his people in a remote village wait the whole day for him. They had prepared days ahead for his arrival, only to be told he wasn’t coming. I suppose the adage, “better late than never” may have been acceptable in this case, but regardless, that is still a poor show!
In a church gathering, I once saw a minister, the main celebrant of a programme, strut in three hours late with no apology! Strangely, the hosts, ever so respectful for the ‘anointed of God’, said that was perfectly ok – much to the frustration of those who came on time! Something is not right in this.
God’s word on lateness
Firstly, there is no Bible verse that says, “Thou shalt not be late”! However, there are scriptural principles that may apply. These have to do more with our attitudes than the actual act of coming late.
Here are some examples of what happens when we are constantly late:
We show a lack of humility.
My time is more important that the people’s. They wait for me; I do not wait for them. I am more important so let them wait. But the Bible says, “Don’t do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble toward one another” (Phil 2: 3 GNB).
We show a lack of honour for others
To go for a job interview, I will go on time to impress the boss. I value his time and opinion of me. But for the appointment with my friend, I can go late. He is not important. I honour the boss more because I want the job. Yet God says we must honour one another (Rom 12:10).
We show that we are rude
Forcing others to wait is rude. Christian love is not rude (1 Cor 13:5). But what is considered ‘rude’ varies from culture to culture, and what is late in one may not be considered late in another. That is the dilemma we have as Melanesian Christians. Our cultural ‘big man mentality’ makes us excuse the chronically late big man, or we arrogantly make people wait for us. Should we be led by our Christian convictions or our culture?
We prove that we cannot keep our word.
When we agree with someone to meet at a particular time, we are – in effect – making a promise. By being late, we break that promise. Also, if I agree to a time knowing I will be late or absent, then that is an issue of integrity. Remember to “let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (James 5; 12). This can also affect our Christian witness. As Christians, we should be known as people of our word, trustworthy and dependable, reflecting the good character of our God.
We cause others to sin
No doubt, our constant lateness will get people annoyed. They will be frustrated and angry, maybe causing some to sin. God’s word tells us that we are never to be the cause of someone else’s sin. As Jesus said to his disciples: “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Luke 17:1 ESV).
If we have that problem of constant lateness, here are some things we can do:
Don’t just agree to an appointment. Check out your commitments properly before you commit. Then, if you agree to meet that person at that time, make it your priority. That way, you will value the person, giving him respect.
Plan your travel
Assess your travel distance, transport mode, traffic delays etc., and work out how much time you will need to get there. Then leave at that time.
Target 5 minutes before arrival
Try to get there about 5 minutes earlier so you don’t have to rush. Avoid being rude by being too early or too late.
Call if you cannot be on time
If you are running very late, call to inform. Don’t keep people guessing. That is rude.
Finally, say sorry. That is probably the hardest for some to do. If you find you cannot make it at all due to certain reasons, call and inform the people. Then, swallow your pride and apologise for it!
Keeping to time matters. Unlike in our ancestor’s laid back era, today, time means money, and serious people will be serious with their time. God gives us all the same allotted time each day. Therefore, we must be good stewards of time by being disciplined, being on time and keeping our appointments. When we fail, don’t say, “Its PNG time”. Instead say, “Sorry”, and keep trying to improve. Only then will God be honoured!
- Rev Seik Pitoi is a freelance writer.