Cell Phones, Relativity and Tardiness

Contributing writer Annabelle Gurwitch notes Americans' tendency to be late for almost every event — business, social and otherwise — and she believes the root of the problem lies in our national love affair with cell phones.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, an effort to take away a Nobel Prize from the man who developed the lobotomy. But first...

ANNABELLE GURWITCH:

I believe that I may have proven Einstein's special theory of the relativity of time by studying the most common usage of cell phones compared and contrasted with modern, acceptable etiquette norms.

BRAND: Contributing writer Annabelle Gurwitch has been thinking about the nature of time.

GURWITCH: Basically stated, as I understand it, Einstein's theory argued that time is not a fixed notion. In fact, it is constantly in flux, and nowhere is this more evident than the changing definition of time and timeliness in our world today. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of cell phone users are engaged in what kind of discussions? An update on how late they will be arriving to any given destination. True, this is based on my completely unscientific method of eavesdropping on complete strangers, but I defy anyone to challenge this supposition.

To confirm my postulations, I contacted a number of completely random people in my life to conduct this survey. For instance, when I asked a producer I had worked for recently about her concept of time and what constituted being late in her workplace, she said...

Unidentified Woman #1: If they're 10 minutes late, they're not really late. If they're supposed to come at 2 and they come at 10 past 2, I still think of them as on time.

GURWITCH: If they come at the actual time that you have scheduled them to come, they're early.

Unidentified Woman #1: And I'm always a little surprised.

GURWITCH: (Laughs) Now what if they came early?

Unidentified Woman #1: Early is almost as much of a problem as late is.

GURWITCH: So then the desirable time to arrive is just a little late, which, because of changing norms, is now considered actually being on time. But being on time isn't really a good thing in every situation--for instance, on the dating scene, as was confirmed by my single and, I might add, very eligible friend Ming(ph).

MING: I'm amazed usually when people are on time. I'm like, `You're on time. I can't believe it.'

GURWITCH: Being on time might have negative implications.

MING: They're very organized and probably more organized than I am.

GURWITCH: Now complicating all this is that different ethnicities have different experiences of time. I talked to NPR's own Karen Grigsby Bates, who has written a definitive book about etiquette in African-American culture. She introduced me to the concept of CP time.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Colored people's time.

GURWITCH: (Laughs) What is colored people's time?

BATES: It is facetiously referred to within the community as being late.

GURWITCH: Karen added her own view of DT, dating timeliness.

BATES: If I were waiting for a date, I'd give him about 15 minutes, and after that, he's history.

GURWITCH: Of course, 15 minutes late by my producer's clock is really only five minutes late because her idea of on time factors in 10 minutes lateness already. So Karen's date would be a little late but still a few minutes too early for Ming.

Now how does the cell phone contribute to this phenom? I believe the cell phone is actually the engine that is pushing our redefined definitions of time because since you can cell ahead and say you're running late, this gives people an excuse not to be on time. `I'm 10 minutes away. I'm 10 minutes away.'

But if someone says they're 15 minutes late, what does it really mean?

Unidentified Woman #2: Half an hour.

GURWITCH: Again, adding to the slippery slope of relative time. However, there is one last bastion where one is still expected to be on time; on time being the mutually agreed upon notion of hour and minute, and that is the doctor's office. And yet this, too, is often violated. I asked my GP's office manager if she had noticed this changing notion of timeliness.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yes. It usually starts like this: `I was running late to my meeting. I'm on my way.'

GURWITCH: And there's the second call, `I'm almost there.'

Unidentified Woman #3: I usually get the third phone call, `I'm just trying to find somewhere to park the car.'

GURWITCH: Now this may be the one place in the world where another scientific principle comes into play because for every action, there is an equal reaction. And she tells her cell phone time travelers...

Unidentified Woman #3: We duly like that we may also be running late for you.

GURWITCH: Ouch. Of course, here's the big question. Why? Why is everyone running late?

Unidentified Woman #4: Traffic's always the big one.

Unidentified Man: Oh, it's always traffic.

Unidentified Woman #4: Your excuse was there had been an accident and traffic was backed up.

GURWITCH: I think that was true.

To further add to the confusion, we all experience time differently. So if you liked this piece, time has just flown by listening to me. But if you didn't, it seems like I've gone on forever. Einstein, eat your heart out.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future.

BRAND: Contributing writer Annabelle Gurwitch.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future. Doo, do, do-do. Doo, do, do-do. Doo, do, do-do. I want to fly like an eagle...

BRAND: I'm Madeleine Brand. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues in a moment.

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