The Psychology of speed in China

The Psychology of speed in China


In this I would like to analyze the concept of speed in China in comparison with the Western cultures concept of a “sense of urgency”. What is speed and how does it affect our daily lives how does it differ from our, sense of urgency. speed is the speed at which we average out our daily activity in the workplace and in travelling from one place to another. A sense of urgency however is our concept of the importance of completing a task stated to us in a given moment, particularly in the workplace. In China the speed of life is much slower than that of Western cultures in many aspects and there is little sense of urgency except in the thought of earning money, but not the action of earning money.

speed in China

Ask any Westerner in China what frustrates them the most and they will tell you quite quickly the speed of trying to get anything done, from walking in the street to business deals. In the West we attend to the concept of, time is money; this concept does not seem to have any place in day to day Chinese business affairs. Business deals here are done over long lunches with little progress in actual detail merely an agreement to do business at some point in the future. Walking down the street as a Westerner you are regularly having to swerve past ambling people, quicken you own speed to make it to meetings you though you had time to arrive at, but find yourself confined and often forced to slow down as the huge crowds do not allow you to get by without physically pushing past people. However my own natural English politeness will not allow me to be rude and hurry others. (The curse of my own culture perhaps). I decided that perhaps a more formal observation was required to find out if this was merely my own perception or that there is some basis for this and what appears to me to be such a slow speed of existence.

Thinking out the Hypothesis

My hypothesis is that the slow speed of life was often associated with the feeling of being exploited and disappointed.

You might find this a strange conclusion, but a little background explanation will help you see where my view is coming from. First this is a communist state run country where everyone is told they proportion life and work for the shared good and a harmonious society. This method that as a Chinese person I would have the same rights, the same say and the same strength as the next man irrespective of his rank and authority. If you want an example of this you need look no further than the streets. A car bumps a cyclist, arguments be later to, who is to blame, who is to pay, who is to going to say sorry, then the police come, the arguments turn from the accident to the interference of the police, what right have they to tell us how to settle our argument. The police try to intervene and take an authoritarian standpoint. Then the crowds come along – viewing the spectacle of the two drivers and maybe three police all arguing and shouting with no-on listening to the other. Then the crown joins in, shouting advice, insults, telling the police to leave them alone. Finally all the parties depart, the police leave often first, exasperated at getting no-where. Then the crowd disperses when the fun of shouting has died down. Finally the driver of the car and bicycle depart – often with no resolution. You have to observe these events to really believe they happen and they happen daily.

The next component is population, this is simply huge and with so many people looking regularly for work it is an employers market and so workers accept often bad conditions, poor pay and simple living accommodation as the norm. So how do these workers react to such exploitation by employers – this is my hypothesis of the speed of working life. Many employees are seen in the traditional parental role here in China where parents tell children what they are going to do in life with little or no discussion. In the workplace this telling management style continues and workers just fall into line with their early experiences of childhood. They adapt to the situation as children of strict authoritarian parental rules, but now as employees unprotected to the whim of the employer.

In this air what then motivates the worker to truly work? In direct observations of office staff I noticed that every single one had logged into a chat service while presumably working. They spent a important part of the day in chat rooms talking to friends or strangers. When a boss entered the office all these were minimised temporarily until the boss had retired to their office or left. Many workers stayed long after finishing time – not to continue working but continue to chat. Now some larger companies with servers have confined all messenger sets except to senior staff. However as email is now an basic part of all businesses this nevertheless allows continued emailing to non-business contacts. In the West we of course recognise the disgruntled employee and also accept that they can sabotage the company’s well-being by malicious damage to character (breaking the photocopier on purpose), doing personal work instead of business, taking longer breaks than authorised and many other anti-company activities such as negative talk to other staff and outsiders. (Of course in the USA this can rule to deadly results with disgruntled employees using guns to exact revenge on an employer that may have wronged them). In China this also occurs but with more subtlety in that it is the speed that matters. The slow deliberate way of working in order to maximise time for each task with no sense of corporate responsibility or loyalty to the companies mission (assuming the employee ever knows what the mission statement is or if it already exists).

A Sense of Urgency

In the West a, sense of urgency requires workers to finish a task within stated time frames and deadlines but I have seen very little of this in China, instead everything can be done later. Recently in a business meeting a Chinese lawyer told me it was an urgent requirement that they re-look at the company image to enhance their market proportion. When I asked when he wanted the contract to begin he said, no – hurry lets eat lunch and talk again in a few days. I did not flinch at this openly but inside my eyes where looking upwards to heaven. This without of urgency is costing many Chinese companies dearly in dealing with Western businessmen, the Westerners see often that there is too much time wasting going on and that they lose faith very quickly in the deal as they feel if this is how they negotiate then what is it going to be like to get them to meet deadlines and production schedules. Often deals never make it to signing stage because the speed is too slow for Western businessmen who want to fly in, do the deal and fly out. In psychological terms it is like a kind A personality (do it today) trying to do business everyday with a kind B personality (do it tomorrow). It just becomes to frustrating to continue with, so many Western businessmen start to look in other places for suppliers.

Expectations not being met

One other explanation is the problem of expectations of the young in China. After University in particular many leave to look for the good job with the good career with the international employer. However many then experience profound disappointment as jobs are scarce and prospects for that golden career are minimal. Often large overseas employers bring dedicated staff from their own country to manage the operations and merely use the Chinese workers in subsidiary locaiongs while the career jobs are in the hands of their own nationals who come for a term of office in China only to return home to a new position after a appropriate trial period. One very well know Taiwanese company in Shanghai only has Taiwan nationals in management locaiongs and often the Chinese mainland workers talk of their without of any real opportunities in the company because they are not from Taiwan. The level of job satisfaction at the company begins high until the new staff learns of this situation and then job satisfaction plummets. When expectation is taken away from the individual then the motivation to continue work with any sense of spirit quickly disappears and is replaced by apathy.

The speed gets slower

We now have multiple factors as to why the speed of life is slower and that China lacks a sense of urgency in its business and life affairs. Where the workers feels a without of appreciation, a without of monetary gain, promotional opportunities and defeated life expectations all add up to, “why should I bother”. In all research of course we are generalising and that some Chinese will have both a faster speed and a sense of urgency but when compared to the majorities social attitude this is easily over-looked just as in the West much apathy exists in our society with crushed expectations of life and work. What is rare to Chinese culture is you see it everywhere, the slow speed, the without of urgency and above all the apathy about life in general. While most young Chinese believe China is moving forward they do not think anything will change much in their lifetime as the speed of social change is not the same as the rapid change in economic growth. Westerners often confuse these two things to their cost.

Direct Observations

In observation of over 45 Chinese companies, (in four cities) and interviews with chosen staff at various levels most commenter’s agreed with the over-all hypothesis of this paper. Other additional comments by Chinese workers were the sense of greed in the society, the without of empathy for others, the speed of economic change was leaving the great majority of the older generation behind, and the cost of living was now beyond most Chinese’s ability to own character and life’s comforts. If you go to Shanghai or Beijing you may be confused by what you see as vibrant modern cities complete of people going about their business, but like all illusions they are sometimes just the show, the real story is to be found in the mass of Chinese living and working throughout the rest of China – at that slow speed with a sense of apathy about their lives and future.


Like all observations you cannot apply the findings to everyone. Some will indeed by situation, character, personality and circumstance see reality by a different frame. This paper merely reflects a Western view of the speed and sense of urgency in comparison to that culture. Many Chinese freely let in to the findings here in this paper but feel powerless to change the situation they consequently go on to feel a sense of helplessness in general. Many Westerners would love to see their own country, culture, slow down; take life a little easier, take time to watch the flowers grow. However they also see it as a dream not a reality in the fast-paced, high urgency, do it today Western thinking. I live and work in China, I like to live here but have no wish to adapt to the speed or the without of urgency. I do not want to go native so to speak. When I walk with my Chinese friends, I am always stopping to let them catch up and I think I am walking very slowly in the first place. I shout at them jokingly in Mandarin to hurry up. They just laugh and ask why I need to get everywhere so quickly. Maybe I just have more to do in my life and feel time wasting is not in my own character. They think I am strange and tell me I have the energy of a 20 year old, well maybe they have a point as I am now 52.

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