It really gets drilled into you in
Police Academy 4 social work school. We need to treat our clients with respect, and earn their trust. The first, easiest way to do this is to be reliable. Show up on time. Call if you’ll be delayed. (But really, avoid being delayed.)
This also applies in your personal life. When my boyfriend said he would “call tomorrow” the night we met, and then actually did…pretty hot.
I took this seriously, and applied it to my work. It was easy for me. I’m accustomed to being on time. Anyone who has ever been taught by a nun knows better than to show up late. You want to walk into Sister Eileen’s class after it has started? No, no, my friend, I don’t think you do. They don’t hit you anymore, but words hurt.
Being on time was easy for me. It also made sense. We have kind of a lot to do. Scheduling appointments back to back is really the only way to get the work done. It’s what my doctors always do! Except they’re often, in my experience, jerks who don’t keep to their schedule and make everyone else wait. If I’m not like that, and make sure sessions keep to their allotted time, we’ll be fine.
Problem is, I’m not a doctor. People don’t have to see me to get their kids into school or camp, or because they’re afraid they might die. If they’re not in crisis, they’re often not interested. I don’t have the leverage that a doctor has. We don’t charge, so that’s out. And saying, “Well sorry, I won’t be able to see you!” would likely be ineffective, and would also make me feel like a terrible person.
So when people roll in thirty or forty minutes, or a day or two, late, we just kind of have to work with it, and try to address it. It’s often suggested that this is a form of resistance. Sometimes, I’m sure it is, but what if people are late to everything?
Recently, I scheduled a home visit with a client, and asked if I could come by at one pm. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll be back by two.” We had to go through that a few times. With a new client, I showed up precisely at four for a home visit, just like I said I would. The second time this happened, she looked at me warily and said, “So you’re always right on time, huh?”
I didn’t know how to respond. When else should I be there?
I’ve been told that my punctuality is cultural. This is, no doubt, largely true. In my family, if we say Christmas dinner begins at 2 pm, you get there by 1:45. You don’t show up at 2:15. It simply isn’t done. When I went to a friend’s baby shower, she made a point of explaining to me that her family is Puerto Rican, and I was to resist the urge to show up on time. It was a struggle, but I got there two hours late. But it was worth it; I wasn’t the first one there. (I arrived after her mother. All other guests got there about an hour later than I.)
I’ve noticed that almost every nationality and race say that they operate on their own “time.” Costa Ricans have “Tico Time” (“Tico” is a neutral term, I can say it), my cousins say they run on “Navajo Time,” mostly older black people I know talk about “CPT” (that one I don’t say), and when I spent a semester in Ireland the Irish kids reminded us to meet them on “Irish time.” My cousin’s husband’s family even say that they have their own family time. I assume that this is because they are gingers.
I’ve been trying to figure out what the hell culture prides themselves on being on time, and have since been told it’s the Germans.
When it gets down to it, though, we need to be on time. For family parties, it’s fine to operate by your own cultural watch.It’s annoying, but not harmful, be that person who everyone tells to show up for brunch twenty minutes earlier than actual meeting time. But for work, for medical appointments, we need to be on time, or nothing will ever get done. And it makes your social worker slowly come undone.
Back at Anonymous Youth Center, I got into it about this, as the kids don’t say, with a coworker. A kid showed up for our summer program a half hour before the doors opened. I explained to him that he was welcome to wait outside, or walk the half block back to his house, until the doors opened.
A Cuban coworker of mine, who worked for another program at the center, and therefore would not be taking time away from her work to entertain this child, told me I should let him in. Against my better judgment, I explained my reasoning. No one was available to watch this kid. We had to set up breakfast. And, more importantly, it sets a bad precedent. The kids need to understand that there is a time they show up and a time that they leave, and that they don’t get whatever they want.
My coworker, by nature of being forty years older than me, I believe, dismissed everything I said. “Stop acting so American,” I was told.
I’m not particularly patriotic. Her snide tone didn’t make my ears fill with the sounds of our national anthem, or spur me to tell her about my ancestors who built this goddamn country. (I’m pretty sure they didn’t.) But it did prompt a good rant.
“How is doing my job and expecting people to show up at a particular time ‘acting American?’ Of course I act American. I am American, we’re currently in America, and I’m talking to an American child who has never left the country. If I let him in a half an hour early, can he leave twenty minutes late? Can he do that at school, or when he gets a job? Are you going to run this haphazard, arrive-and-depart-as-you-please summer program?!”
At this point, a teenage worker reminded me that it was time to count out the correct number of chocolate milks for breakfast. And also that my older coworker had gotten bored and walked away.
It’s a bit like howling at the moon, fighting againsta habit that’s been with someone for life so that you, the worker, can get what you need to get done. But I hold out hope. Because sometimes, at least, they call.