Monday, December 29, 2008

Question of the Week: Chronically Late Family Members

Stephanie Humphreys is faced with a dilemma. She wrote:

Okay, here's one for you. Many of my family live in the same small town and we do get together quite a bit. For a long time everyone treated lateness as a joke, but is has become chronic and very annoying to me. I can plan a meal for 5:00 and have the last family finally show up at 6:30. Since we most often do potluck that means the meal arrives in spurts. No one will admit to being the late one, in fact, one of the latest people commented at the last dinner that they came half an hour late on purpose because they knew they would still beat others. We have had to leave dinners without eating because of other commitments, which wouldn't have been a problem had the dinner started in time. I tell my husband that I want to start dinners on time and we'll just eat whatever food has already arrived, but he says that is rude and would hurt peoples feelings. So what does Miss Manners have to say about this?

Your husband thinks you would be rude? Seriously?

My first reaction is screw them, eat everything and clean up and teach them a lesson. But that probably won't go over well. So. . .

Families are complex, intricate organisms. There's a delicate balance between so many differing personalities, especially when in-laws become involved and the family expands beyond those that grew up in the same household. I think before any action is taken the following question should always be asked: "What effect will it have?"

For example, you might be very satisfied by venting your annoyances to the guilty parties. You might experience a nice puffed up feeling of pride that you spoke your mind (and may have even been theoretically correct), but if the result is hurt feelings and resentment, it's not likely that you have really solved your problem.

That being said, being late is rude. I think it was Dr. Phil who said that being late is a sign of narcissism, and egocentricity. It's as if you think that you are so wonderful, so valuable, so indispensable, that nothing could possibly happen without you, and that no one will mind waiting for you. Well, the whole world doesn't revolve around you, and you need some professional help to deal with that. However, dinner is waiting.

If members of your family are self-centered, there isn't likely much that you can change about that. That's a personal evolution. But maybe there are some logistics that you can look at. For instance, what is within your control? The time set for the event? The distance that people must travel? How the courses of the meal are divided and assigned?

So, let's look at those things. 5pm is early for a potluck dinner, in my opinion. It's a great time for family dinner, but for people dealing with gathering kids at the end of the day, awaiting a working husband, preparing the dish to bring, finishing up errands of the day, etc, it may be that 5pm just isn't realistic, but nobody wants to complain about that. Church dinners are never scheduled for 5pm for that very reason. Dinner gatherings are usually scheduled just a bit later than a family dinner might be usually held. What if you scheduled the next get-together for 6 or 6:30pm? People can't wait much longer than that for dinner, so is it likely that they'll still show up at 8?

Is the gathering always held at the same person's house? Switch it up. And I would say, pick the person who is most likely to be the straggler and have it at their house. Having hungry people show up on time to their house is a powerful motivator.

Don't assign beginning courses to the late people! Assign them the desserts! I mean, c'mon. If you have something scheduled for 6pm, it isn't realistic to think that people will arrive at 5:45, and be in their chairs with their arms folded and heads bowed for the blessing on the food at 5:59. When an informal family gathering occurs, there is an acceptable window of arrival. And, people like to come and chat a bit before sitting down. So, if you've invited them to come at 6, then plan to sit and eat at 6:30, and no one showing up after that time has any right to feel ruffled that you didn't wait longer. They should just apologize profusely, sit down, and eat. Experiencing the fact that people will not wait beyond reason should spur them into action the next time around. And if they arrive so late that dinner is over and cleaned up (these are the people bringing dessert), then tell them they can dish up a plate in the kitchen. Say it with a smile, though.

Families must have communication. Can you have a family council with the adults of the family about this matter? Maybe there are others that have issues contributing to their lateness and they would appreciate a forum to discuss them. Without accusation, ask how others feel about what time these events should be held and where, and what proper protocol will be acceptable if something should arise causing a delay. Because beyond communication, families should have respect for one another too. That's just plain common sense.


Annette Lyon said...

That's a tough situation. You answered it well. I've got a couple of late comers in my own family, and at times we just deliberately set an earlier time than we really want so that when they eventually do show up, it's close to the real time we expected.

The reality is that no matter what you do, you cannot control anyone but yourself. (Another Dr. Philism.) At the end of the day, if none of Jenna's brilliant suggestions work, you just have to learn to live with it. If you walk into the situation knowing it'll happen, you can get past being too annoyed by it.

Egocentric people like that can't generally be reasoned with; I speak from experience. They can't even SEE that they're being egocentric.

Josi said...

I would suggest that you have something scheduled for your own family at a certain time following the next dinner, if it's held at your house. Then let them know that dinner is at 6:00--and your family is going to a friends house at 8:30 to see the new baby (or dog, or kitchen table) This gives you a cut off point. Definitely give them the dessert and without being mad or acting put out, just start at the right time, leaving the leftovers out for them, and when you hit 8:30, wave on your way out the door. If your husband doesn't like it, he can stay with them and watch them eat.

Another way to broach it is to simply say "I'm wondering if this is a good time for the dinner? Is it too early for you guys to make it?" This allows you address the time issue, like Jenna mentioned, without making them feel like you are critisizing them.

Good luck--I hate late people.

Shelly said...

I agree with the others about dessert.

Our family's late aunt was always in charge of the rolls! Agggraaa! When she didn't show up for the meal, we'd begin to call... when was just then rolling them out!

She quickly got the dessert detail and we ate with out her.

What if you changed to a open house type thing with finger foods?
Say from 1 to 4 come and go. Most people that want to see everyone will come and stay until they've seen everyone, those that have egos too big to get there will only see those that there.

That way everyone is in control of their time and food isn't as big of an obstacle.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

Thanks for all the great ideas. Some I've already tried but there are some new ideas too. Guess no matter how much they annoy us, we still have to love them. I'm sure I do things that annoy them too :) (Although I'm always on time.)

Luisa Perkins said...

Nice job; this column is a great idea.