25 Oct 2017, 10:46

Don't say 'Better late than never' (unless you're convincing yourself to take action)

My birthday was a few weeks ago, and I got some thoughtful gifts in the mail. As I was making coffee this morning, I remembered that I still have several thank you cards to write, and I thought about my classic thank you note formula, which consists of the following three parts:

  1. Some version of saying “thank you” (“Thank you so much!", “I really appreciate it”, “That was so nice of you”).
  2. Describing specifically why this gift was a nice one to receive (“I’ve been eyeing that for awhile”, “I’m totally going to use this when we go hiking this weekend”).
  3. A reference to the next time I’ll see the person (“Looking forward to getting together at Christmas!", “Not sure when the next time we’ll be in town will be, but hopefully soon!").

When I write it out like that it sounds pretty thoughtless. I really do mean what I’m saying, but I could put in more effort. At any rate though, I didn’t sit down to write about sincerity.

As I was thinking about my thank you note formula, it occurred to me that I really should have a fourth item in this particular round of notes: the whole “Sorry this is so late” thing. That’s when I caught myself planning to include a cliché: “Better late than never though, right?” Har har.

Now, the fact that it’s a cliché is bad enough, but it suddenly struck me that not only was I employing an overused phrase, I was using it incorrectly. Or rather, I want to argue that it’s an inappropriate usage.

If I’m late to the game on something and say “better late than never” (BLTN from here on out) when I finally come through, what I’m really doing is asking to be excused or forgiven, but by telling instead of asking. I’m saying, “I screwed up, but since it’s better to eventually get it right than never at all, you really should cut me some slack.” That last part is seldom stated, but it is implicit. It’s also rude and presumptuous.

This might sound a bit too obsessive of a meditation on the etiquette of thank you note writing, but what made me want to really think this through was the other contexts in which we say BLTN. For example, a person who realizes too late how offensive something they said to a friend might have been taken. I think it would be wrong in those cases for the guilty party to approach the person they hurt, apologize, and then say, “I know I should have made this right months ago, but BLTN”. The aggrieved may not be ready to forgive, but this phrasing pressures them to. Maybe the apology will be accepted, but the person needs time.

The notion (if not the clichéd phrasing) of BLTN can be useful, however. It just needs to be self-applied rather than directed outwards. Now, when considering whether to apologize to someone for a wrong committed long ago, of course I ought to first consider whether I’m doing it for them or merely to ease my own guilt/restore my image. If that’s all I’m doing and it’s unlikely to actually help them, it may be better to leave it alone. That part is tough; it’s hard to make that call with imperfect information. But if it’s a person with whom I have an ongoing relationship, things might be different. It’s a case by case thing, but restoring or improving it might make bringing up the past the right thing to do.

Only after I’ve determined that it is the right thing to do should BLTN come into play. For example, I might be tempted to continue ignoring the issue, but I should tell myself, “Better late than never, don’t use the passage of time as an excuse.” And I think that counts whether it’s a weighty issue, or just a late-arriving thank you note. I’m not positive, still thinking it through, but I definitely want to start being more self-aware, and catch myself using it. When I do, the key is whether I used it to get myself to take action, or just as an excuse.