This involves only latecomers in professional contexts like a physician, and differs from this.

I don't believe in saying nothing, as they may judge my silence as condonation of their lateness.

I brainstormed the following utterances in increasing order of tact (i.e. 1.3 feels more tactful than 1.1), but they still feel too offensive.

Can I please ask why:

  1. you were late?

  2. you arrived after the scheduled time?

  3. why we didn't start at the scheduled time? This worried me not least because the wait will disrupt my schedule.

  • @AnneDaunted Assume that they were late for 30 minutes, but after a specific scheduled appointment time. So they may schedule for 9-10 AM, but then arrive at 10:30.
    – NNOX Apps
    Nov 7 '17 at 13:38
  • 5
    What's with the 'mentally distressing'? How serious is this for you, are you 'just annoyed', or is it really that necessary for you to follow the schedule, because if not, you'll go nuts?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Nov 7 '17 at 13:48
  • Did the latecomer give advance notice that they would be late or not? Is the location you were meeting at easily accessible or not? To me at least this makes a difference. For instance, if you know you're in a hard-to-reach location it doesn't seem productive to fault people for being late when the reason they're late is due to something they couldn't reasonably know in advance.
    – Cronax
    Nov 7 '17 at 14:10
  • May I edit your question to rephrase most of it? I think it can help people to understand your question better, especially without too formal phrasing and difficult words.
    – Vylix
    Nov 13 '17 at 7:07
  • 4
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because questions asking what to say are off topic for this site.
    – sphennings
    Mar 27 '18 at 19:38

One of the core ideas behind politeness and etiquette is that you assume no malice (or willful negligence) when there is nothing to indicate malice or willful negligence.

There are perfectly reasonable explanations why the person in question was late, many of which are no justifiable cause to blame them for being late.

The fact that you have a meeting with these people suggests that meeting people is what they do for a living. Not every meeting's duration can be accurately estimated beforehand, many of these meetings are susceptible to the actual topic of discussion, and can vary in length based on the client/patient's situation.

As an example, my doctor allows for online appointments to be made in 15 minute intervals. However, that doesn't mean that my doctor abruptly ends the consultation after exactly 15 minutes.
If an appointment ends up taking longer, then so be it. The alternative (kicking out a patient) is much worse than a minor delay, and these delays should average out in the long term (some appointments take less than the scheduled 15 minutes).

Saying nothing would forgive their lateness: but I refuse to, as their lateness is not pardonable, disrupts scheduling, and mentally distresses me.

  • It is pardonable, especially if you don't know the reason for them being late yet!
  • It does indeed disrupt scheduling, but keep in mind that this affects the person's scheduling too! If you make an appointment with someone, and it gets delayed, all participants have to suffer the delay.
  • Mental distress is not a fair argument here. You're exaggerating the issue. Unless your appointment was with a mental health physician about your oversensitivity to human error (I concede that this comes across as a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it's the only acceptable scenario I can think of)

Schedules can be delayed, they are not intentional nor malicious, and you need to learn how to deal with unintended accidents, or at the very least respond to them in an appropriate measure.

  1. I'd first utter one of the following (interrogative) statements

The fact that you label such a question as interrogative suggests that there is an underlying hostility to your question.

That underlying hostility, when detected or inferred by the other person, would completely negate any polite phrasing you use.

One of 1.1-1.3 would be followed by a second (declarative) statement

Now you move on to declarative statements. Why?

Why are you the one making a statement, when you're in fact unsure why this person was late? You're being presumptuous.

The lateness worried me not least because it will disrupt my scheduling and the wait wasted my time.

  • "Not least because" is unnecessarily hostile.
  • A delayed appointment inherently leads to a disrupted schedule. That's the literal definition of a delay. You're stating the obvious, which comes across as complaining for the sake of complaining.
  • If you have a valid complaint, use a concrete justification. Don't say "it wastes my time", say "I have another appointment soon". Without a concrete complaint, the validity of your complaint is easily questioned.

In order to remain polite, you should never assume that the lateness was unwarranted, malicious or caused by willfull (or reckless) negligence.

If your intention is to reprimand this person for their lateness, any attempt at being polite has inherently failed before you've even said anything. It is the nature of your interaction that is offensive, regardless of how you phrase it.

There are better ways to approach this, my preferred approach would be to casually ask if the person is having a busy day.

Note the stress on the casual nature of your request. You're asking a question out of curiosity, not because you are owed an explanation or are trying to reprimand this person for being late.

To summarize:

  • Do not assume malice or incompetence. Be understanding that things sometimes don't work out the way you plan them. This applies to every living creature.
  • Do not try to reprimand this person for their lateness. You're not their mother, nor are you their boss. Before you act, consider what would happen if you end up running late for your next appointment with this person, for a completely understandable reason that is not your fault.
  • Although it would be polite for this person to explain why they were late, you are not owed an explanation. If you imply (or outright state) that you are owed an explanation, then you come across as feeling entitled, which is nowhere near polite.
  • If you have a valid issue with the meeting being delayed, use a concrete explanation. Don't just try to argue the general point of how valuable your time is.
  • Any hostility from your end, whether implicit or explicit, will dramatically affect the interactions with this person in the future.
  • You're allowed to ask nicely why they were late. If you wish to avoid coming across as intrusive, simply ask if they are having a busy day. This way, you come across as interested in this person's wellbeing (i.e. their current stress level), rather than trying to berate them for not being on time.

I was recently in a similar situation. I had a doc appointment scheduled at 11:30, I arrived at 11:15 because I am polite and knew there would be some paperwork to fill out too. When I arrived, I asked if the doc was running on time, and the receptionist looked at the monitor and replied, yep - he appears to be.

At noon, I asked, "Can you see how much longer it will be?". The person went back and checked something and told me "not much longer"....

Needless to say, this was a terrible experience. I had tweaked my back, and need to see the doc, and I did: at 12:40.

The long and short of the story is this: Sometime stuff happens that is beyond anyone's control. In my case, I finally found out a doc called in sick and my doc was now double booked. My choices here are to make a scene and leave or wait it out. I choose to wait it out.

In some cases, where no decent excuse or apologies are offered, I call it out. I say something like "We had an appointment at X, and it is now X + Y". Besides making me feel better, which it does at the time, the outcome is still the same. The person is late.

In a professional setting if this is the normal behavior, I find another professional to deal with.

  • 1
    Actually it is, in my country at least, very normal that you have to wait, sometimes even hours altough you have an appointment. Happened to me a lot of times and thats totally normal and nothing to stress about.
    – MansNotHot
    Nov 7 '17 at 14:42
  • docs, lawyers, etc.... are almost always a bit late here in the USA. Hours is not normal in my experience.
    – user1856
    Nov 7 '17 at 14:43
  • 1
    @CoffeineConverter: It depends on the context here. A doctor's time is assumed to be valuable enough that they wouldn't waste it with no good cause (a patient's health takes precedence, emergencies happen, a consultation can run late). But if e.g. a painter shows up late at a client's house, that does need to be justified (as there is no inherent assumption that they may have been helping someone else with an emergency)
    – Flater
    Nov 7 '17 at 15:29

I recently had an experience where I made an appointment for a specified time, arrived on time, but wasn't seen until an hour and a half later. Very frustrating! I contemplated simply leaving, but I needed to see the person that day.

If you want to know why, ask about the delay in impersonal terms. Perhaps there was a bad accident on their way there or the previous patient had complications, so you don't want to jump the gun and sound like you're accusing them personally of being incompetent or disrespectful of your time. (Even if you're grumpy enough to think that, it will be much more pleasant if you assume good faith!)

So try something like,

Can I ask what the delay was?

It's still asking for an explanation, but without making it personal (notice there is no "you" in the sentence). Of course, tone will make a big difference.

Another idea is to make a guess and ask about that. This can help you develop a rapport and ease the interaction. I did this for my situation,

Wow, seems like you guys are busy today. Did you get a lot of walk-ins?

which made the guy realize just how late they had gotten to me, he apologized for the delay, and then we had a topic for small talk.

In some situations, you might be able to speak to another person about the delay, such as a manager or a receptionist. Mister Positive's answer has a good example of that. Talking to another person allows you to register your complaint but without having to confront the late person directly, which may not always be desirable.

  • Most of these types of professionals do not keep their own schedule. My doc has no clue about it. He sees who is next and carrys on.
    – user1856
    Nov 7 '17 at 14:57
  • Sure, and some of them do know when appointments were scheduled.. OP didn't limit the question to doctors with receptionists.
    – Em C
    Nov 7 '17 at 15:00
  • @MisterPositive: If a doctor defers his scheduling to an assistant, that does not absolve the doctor from tardiness. While I do agree that being late is not inherently rude, passing the buck and not taking responsibility for being late is inherently rude. The meeting was between the doctor and the patient, who were both aware of the meeting beforehand. It is the responsibility of the doctor and the patient to show up on time. The assistant can assist the doctor, but is not responsible for any delays.
    – Flater
    Nov 7 '17 at 15:41
  • @Flater Not saying being late it not rude. It is. It is more rude to not offer up an excuse too. But in certain fields it is what it is.
    – user1856
    Nov 7 '17 at 15:42

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.