I went to a low-key dinner party recently, arriving approximately 15 minutes after the specified hour. And the hostess, instead of greeting me with a smile and a "How nice to see you," frowned at me and said, "You're late."
"Yes, fashionably late," I replied, thinking she was only pretending to be offended. But if she was pretending, she did an excellent job of it. "Well, late is late," she said, then turned to attend to her more prompt guests. She's a good friend, which is why she can get away treating me like that, but it got me wondering: When are you supposed to arrive at a dinner party these days? Am I out of fashion?
Party Pooper: You may not realize it, Pooper, but you've just tripped over one of the bedrocks of civilization, our shared sense of time. We all have internal clocks, wound by nature and nurture, that tell us when it's time to, say, have a bite of cheese. But we also have external clocks, often hanging on the wall or strapped to our wrists, that tell us when it's time to, say, have a bite of cheese. And those two times may vary. Add another person to the equation and there are now four possible times to have a bite of cheese. Throw in a dinner party and only a mouse could fully appreciate the sheer complexity of the situation, and I haven't even mentioned the wine yet.
I have this friend who's five minutes late to everything. I've told him that if he would just shift his life forward five minutes, he'd be as punctual as...well, as me. But he says it's impossible for him to shift his life forward even one minute, and I've learned to accept that, spending the extra time quietly plotting his funeral, which I've arranged to begin five minutes before the hour. I, on the other hand, will be five minutes early to my own funeral. This will allow me to adjust the lighting, fix that "smile" on my face and make sure everybody's sitting where I told them to. Of course, the real reason I'll be five minutes early is because I'm five minutes early to everything.
Well, not everything. I had to learn to arrive at dinner parties a few minutes late. Arrive a few minutes early and the hosts, who may be missing key articles of clothing, look at you like you're a serial killer with leprosy who works for the IRS. Arrive exactly on time and they look at you like "Oh, you're one of those." So I now strive to arrive somewhere between three and five minutes after the appointed hour. This is often easy to pull off since I've been either driving around the block or parked at the corner for the previous eight to 10 minutes. On occasion, I will spot another guest doing the same thing. Sometimes, we smile and wave at each other, but usually I pretend to be having trouble finding the right house.
So, arriving early is as bad as arriving late, but how late? That's a good question, and the answer varies by city, state, country and time of year, not to mention race and ethnicity. (Ever heard of Gaylight Savings Time?) But for our purposes here, I'm going to pull an Emily Post and announce ' as if I'm reading it off a stone tablet ' that one should ideally arrive at a dinner party within eight minutes of the appointed hour. Any later than that and you should phone the host with an estimated time of arrival. Why eight minutes? Because it isn't all the way to 10, and there's something about being 10 minutes late that smacks of carelessness, hence rudeness. Disagree, anyone out there? Well then let's hear from you. Pronto.