Deadlines and Social Interaction
‘Tis the season…for deadlines. If you are a student, this means papers, exams, and assignments come due. For many workers, the holidays and the end of the calendar year can mean sales and billing deadlines, and wrapping up important projects before vacation.
Deadlines also represent a basic social interaction: an agreement between parties of when tasks will be accomplished. Meeting a deadline is about more than just the task itself; it represents the ability to keep a promise, a basic tenet of social life.
People who miss deadlines when paying their bills will find their credit scores lowered, as on time payments comprise 35 percent of your credit score. Many people might be surprised to hear that paying a bill just a few days late can translate into late fees and even an increase in interest rates for other credit cards.
For many employers, a college degree signifies that a person was able to meet many deadlines and complete a series of tasks, regardless of the content of the degree itself. Being able to complete many tasks in a finite period of time is a valuable skill for employers. Employees who manage their time well and accomplish work as agreed make useful “team players” who can be counted on and are more likely to be considered for promotion than people who seem less reliable. If clients are waiting for something they might choose to take their business elsewhere, regardless of the validity of excuses as to why someone missed a deadline.
Missed deadlines are a constant problem for some students, especially for those who face challenges in managing their time in order to meet the varying deadlines for their multiple class assignments. Sometimes, unexpected obstacles like a long-term illness or injury interfere. But in my experience, poor planning is usually the main cause. Even when I have allowed for more time on an assignment, there is typically someone who turns the assignment in late, even when there is a penalty.
I am regularly faced with students who beg me to bend the rules on deadlines and to wave the late penalty for them even when no emergency has taken place. Doing so would violate my agreement with every other student who turned in an assignment on time who might have also benefitted from an extension.
One semester many years ago, a teaching assistant accepted a student’s late assignment despite the syllabus’s clear warning that no late assignments would be accepted. She later regretted the decision after other students found out and complained—especially those who followed the rules and even those who failed to turn in their assignment. To them, an agreement had been breached.
Missing deadlines means that others who depended on you or need your work to do their own will have less time to complete theirs. Instructors have numerous deadlines to meet. Beyond returning students’ work in a timely manner, we have to turn in grades so credits can be processed, we have syllabi to produce, book orders to make, as well as myriad other tasks that come up with committee work we are assigned in our departments or schools. Those who write grant applications and publish papers or books also face multiple deadlines layered on top of the classroom deadlines.
Failing to meet a deadline can communicate more than poor planning. It may tell someone else—a professor, a supervisor, a friend—that the agreement is not important, or at least not enough of a priority to see that it is done. I suspect that some students who miss deadlines would seldom miss an opportunity to go out with friends during the time they could have otherwise been working on a pending assignment.
Even if a missed deadline was not intended as a sign of disrespect, it can be interpreted that way by the people who are affected by the delay. But sometimes extenuating circumstances make meeting deadlines impossible, despite our best intentions. Communicating the importance of both the task and the course or job can go a long way to minimize any sense of disrespect that might develop. I have had students speak to me about a missed deadline who emphasize how important the course is for them and do not ask me to bend the rules. By taking complete responsibility and accepting the consequence of their actions, they are demonstrating the importance of the interactions that emerge from deadlines.
Something as basic as a deadline for a college paper teaches us about the profoundly social nature of everyday life. How else do deadlines reflect social interactions?