Friday, January 20, 2012

The Courtesy of Princes

Some years back, I came across the phrase "Punctuality is the courtesy of princes." I do not know where it originated—perhaps some reader can tell me—but it struck me as embodying an important truth.

Suppose you are the big cheese—king, CEO, guest of honor. If someone else comes late to dinner, his dinner is cold. But the dinner can't start without you, so if you come late to dinner, everyone else's dinner is cold too.

It struck me in part in the context of the SCA, a historical recreation group of which I am a long time member; it actually has kings and princes and feasts, and if the King is half an hour late to the feast everyone else is likely to get food that has been cooling for half an hour.

Part of the justification for the phrase is the observation that lack of punctuality by the prince imposes a cost on everyone else. The other part is the observation that doing things for people only really counts if it costs you something. If the King knights someone, that's great for the recipient, but it does not actually cost the King anything. But being careful always to show up on time when your presence is necessary for other people does cost something, since quite often you have other things you would like to be doing, so it is a way of showing that the welfare of other people, in particular the people you are in some sense in authority over, matters to you.

The point is not limited to feudal societies or historical recreation. In the real world, I make my living as a professor. If one of my students is five minutes late, he misses five minutes of the class. If I am five minutes late, everyone misses five minutes of the class. If one of my students persuades me to revise his grade upwards or exempt him from some requirement of the class that he finds particularly difficult, that's great for him but  doesn't really cost me anything, so is weak evidence that I actually care about his welfare. Taking the trouble to never come late to class, on the other hand, does cost me something.

Punctuality is the courtesy of princes. And professors.



At 8:08 PM, January 20, 2012, Anonymous Jan said...

You ask for the origin of the phrase. The German phrase "Pünktlichkeit ist die Höflichkeit der Könige" ("Punctuality is the courtesy of kings") is probably based on the same origin. According to the German Wikipedia [1], the phrase is attributed to King Louis XVIII of France ("L’exactitude est la politesse des rois"). Apparently the banker Jacques Laffitte cites the king with these words in his memoirs. I also found a book attributing the phrase to Louis XVIII [2].


At 8:50 PM, January 20, 2012, Blogger Eric Goldman said...

I'm always baffled by professors who are late to their own classes. It seems extremely rude to the students. Eric.

At 9:39 PM, January 20, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a med student it never ceases to amaze me how important punctuality is to doctors--unless it involves their own punctuality (the fact that a patient has been waiting for an hour or two is not nearly as important).

At 9:50 PM, January 20, 2012, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jan: Thanks.

At 3:47 AM, January 21, 2012, Blogger Charles Collom said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3:49 AM, January 21, 2012, Blogger Charles Collom said...

In southern California there is a civil unlimited jurisdiction judge who routinely takes the stand anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours after the "calendar time" of 8:30am. I have appeared in court court over a dozen times over a period of 5 years and not once has she been less than 75 minutes late.

Imagine all the money being wasted as 30-50 attorneys sit around doing nothing for 2 hours, but billing their clients nonetheless.

At 6:58 AM, January 21, 2012, Blogger Sub Specie Æternitatis said...

Jan is right that the origin of the phrase if probably German, where it is a commonplace expression (even though it may first have been spoken by a French king).

But I interpret it a little differently than the good Professor does. Politeness in general, and in particular in hierarchical, aristocratic societies, consists out of elaborate displays of deference and humility before all of one's social peers. By pretending to hold them in higher esteem than oneself, one elaborately avoids all pretense of higher status--the cardinal sin against politeness.

Now kings cannot engage in most of these displays. Their status depends on a universal recognition that they are "above" everybody else, even the most senior members of the aristocracy. For a king to publicly put himself down before anybody else would practically correspond to an abdication.

So one of the few signals available to kings that they respect and value their subjects is to be punctual. Nobody could ever call them on being tardy. But by being punctual the king shows that he makes an effort to spare his subjects inconvenience.

At 7:34 AM, January 21, 2012, Anonymous aldel said...

"If the King knights someone, that's great for the recipient, but it does not actually cost the King anything."

I don't think this is true. Knighthood is a currency that monarchs can use as a reward. It's subject to inflation.

At 9:43 AM, January 21, 2012, Blogger SheetWise said...

"aldel said...

Knighthood is a currency that monarchs can use as a reward. It's subject to inflation."

I had the same thought, as I recently reviewed some Irish history along this line.

At 5:06 PM, January 21, 2012, Blogger David Friedman said...

Two commenters suggest that knighting is not costless to the king, since the more knights he makes the less valuable the favor is to the next one. There is some truth to that.

On the other hand, a large part of the cost of inflating the honor is born by those who already have it.

At 12:08 AM, January 22, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

I agree with the point made by Anonymous about doctors, though from a patient's point of view. Is it a truly universal phenomenon, or only in my own experience, that doctors make appointments with patients but are themselves late for almost every appointment? To coin a phrase, "Unpunctuality is the discourtesy of doctors."

At 12:55 AM, January 22, 2012, Blogger SheetWise said...

"David Friedman said...

... a large part of the cost of inflating the honor is born by those who already have it."

Agreed. Inflation is always so.


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