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Singer Rihanna performs at the Forum in Kentish Town in London, Nov. 19, 2012.© Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Before illegally smuggling a monkey onto an airplane, being banned from a Viennese nightclub and allegedly spitting on his neighbour, Justin Bieber was late. For two hours in London last month, he left thousands of devoted Beliebers waiting shoulder to shoulder in a sticky stadium. Now he's regularly scuffling with paparazzi and strutting shirtless through airports. Lateness, that slippery slope, hastened his fall from grace; the monkey cemented his celebrity jerkdom.

Once upon a time, celebrities were new and hungry – showing up early and metaphorically spit-shining the boss's shoes – but then came fame, which breeds complacency, arrogance and lateness. Madonna, Axl Rose, Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton are all known for their lateness because they can be, bending time like the mythical gods they believe they are – and no one objects. I was once sent to interview Rihanna and waited from seven in the morning until midnight. It was official: Rihanna had truly become a superstar.

Why is the tardiness of others so annoying (and our own such a rare, easily explained anomaly)? Lateness isn't merely rude, a sign of bad manners – though it is that – but bound to all sorts of unwritten social assumptions. It's a cultural, subjective concept. Island time isn't New York time; work time isn't weekend time. A recent study published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology examined attitudes toward lateness at meetings and found that being late meant something different to most of the 665 international employees surveyed. Some believed lateness was showing up after the scheduled meeting time. Others allotted a short grace period. For some, missing the social chatter that starts a meeting was fine, while others found it unacceptable.

But by any definition, being late creates a negatively charged work environment, and troubles inter-personal relationships. The European Journal article asserts that meetings start late 37 per cent of the time. On a related note, an Industry Week survey estimated that unproductive meetings cost the American economy $37-billion annually. So the chronically late colleague is affecting productivity, as well as engaging in what sociologists call "status-negotiating behaviour," asserting his dominance by forcing others to wait. (This works two ways: I have a friend whose power play is to always show up early.)

But time-suckers have their defenders. Diana DeLonzor, author of Never Be Late Again, writes that some personalities are hard-wired to lateness. These "deadliners," as she calls them, aren't necessarily trying to exercise supremacy, but rather they're adrenelin junkies who thrive on doing everything last minute. Naturally, they also lack a realistic grasp of exactly how much can be done in a particular slot of time. I have had house guests of this ilk who appear at the breakfast table with an outline for a day in Toronto: the CN Tower, the Royal Ontario Museum, lunch, a hike in High Park, shopping, dinner downtown and a show! I snicker as I hand them a map.

But perhaps we just have different perspectives on this whole time thing. Stanford University professor of psychology Philip Zimbardo, co-author with John Boyd of The Time Paradox, identifies the unconscious ways humans divide experience into time frames, lending order to life. The "present oriented" person is impulsive, seeks novelty and has less concern for future consequences (ergo, no flossing). This type shows up 20 minutes after a meeting's start time because she doesn't consider the negative repercussions. The "future oriented" person anticipates a bad outcome if late, so shows up on time, and is often more professionally successful (the dentist, whom she visits regularly, praises her flossing). But the dark side of being too future-oriented is rigidity and panic while chasing the horizon line, with its ever-shifting markers of success and security. Future orientation is, as Zimbardo notes, a very middle-class condition.

Perhaps this explains a little more about why the rich and powerful aren't fussed by keeping others waiting: Their futures are secured, and the consequences of their lateness are negligible.

The rest of us haven't conquered time. When we're left waiting by a celebrity or a friend, we feel not just disrespected, but robbed. Time is the one commodity that cannot be renewed, as the poets know. When we talk about lateness, we are actually talking about death, the irretrievable passing of the minutes. The late celebrity is declaring his immortality – the kind that fame grants (hopefully). For the rest of us, left waiting, we struggle with the churning sensation that our precious time has been snatched away. We mortals know what's waiting at the end of our carefully cultivated futures.

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