Quick: answer my question. HONK! Sorry. Too slow. You lose!
August 23, 2006 6:38 PM   Subscribe

Why are there fast people and slow people? Why do different people have different paces?

I'm a fast person. I do everything fast. I talk fast; I walk fast; I think fast. I get easily impatient with anyone slow (moving or witted). Why?

I'm in fairly good shape, and I work out. But I didn't used to. I used to be a "couch potato" and my diet was horrible. I've never been athletic. I prefer reading to physical activity. Still, I'm fast and I've always been fast. Changes in my age (I'm 40) and lifestyle don't seem to matter.

When I learn a new idea, I don't need time to process it. I'm immediately using it and putting it through all sorts of permutations. I almost never need a break to rest my brain.

In case anyone thinks I'm feeding my ego here, I'm not. I don't think fast = better. I don't think it = worse, either. There are good and bad aspects to it. Yes, I think fast, and that can make me SEEM smart. But it also means I miss things and make mistakes because I'm zooming through life. I am horrible at just "being" (I'm un-Zen), and I get bored easily.

There seems to be a genetic component to this. My grandmother was fast like me. Way up into her 80s she was zooming ahead of everyone on the street and not suffering fools gladly. (Usually the "fools" were just people who couldn't come up with an immediate answer to her questions. If someone needed a fraction of a second to think, he was an "idiot.")

Why am I like this? Why are other people not like this? Why are there so many different people with so many different paces? It it "metabolism"? It it just upbringing? Is it ADD vs. non-ADD? Some combination of these things? Has anyone ever studied this? Books? Essays? Websites?
posted by grumblebee to Science & Nature (34 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It's not a problem until fast people meet slow people.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:47 PM on August 23, 2006

I think your question is too broad. There are many slow-witted people who could beat Dorothy Parker (the quickest-witted human I can think of) in a footrace. Most of us could beat Fran Liebowitz in a walk down the street without even trying. And there are too many mellow, easy-going marathon winners to name.

I think that random chance has given you a quick mind, a type-A personality and an abundance of fast-twitch muscles. Why you have each of these is three different questions.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 7:07 PM on August 23, 2006

There might be some useful stuff in Faster by James Gleick?

326 pages ... I'll give you a couple of hours to read it.

[On preview: Gleick says that "type A personality" stuff is a bit of a myth]
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:18 PM on August 23, 2006

Try being bipolar. Fast half the time, slow the rest.

I blame brain chemistry.
posted by konolia at 7:21 PM on August 23, 2006

Your profile says you're in Brooklyn - did you grow up there? I'm from lower Manhattan, the same age, and I similarly outwalk and outtalk most people I meet, and can't stand to be mentally idle for even a few seconds. If you grew up in a big city, you were exposed during your formative years to more stimuli faster than if you grew up in suburbia or in the country - more kinds of people with more diverse idioms of speech and styles of thought, more new ideas to assimilate and situations to react to each day. More ambition and less patience.

Also, we're Jews. Smart Ashkenazi Jews.
posted by nicwolff at 7:31 PM on August 23, 2006

I wish I knew.

Why everyone walks so damn slowly.

I don't think it's upbringing. It's certainly not in my case. The problem is that this is terribly subjective concept, with a big huge middle-ground of people who have no reason to care. (Because they are neither very fast nor very slow, and therefore don't perceive the phenomenon the same way as those of us hanging out on the ends of the spectrum. And those of us on opposite ends of the spectrum can sometimes barely communicate.)
posted by desuetude at 7:31 PM on August 23, 2006

Should'a previewed. Nicwolff, I grew up in a boring-ass suburb. (Also, not Jewish.)
posted by desuetude at 7:33 PM on August 23, 2006

I don't think it's upbringing, either- I'm a "fast" person, too, and I grew up in suburban areas (moved cross country every 5 years or so).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:52 PM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Consider, what if everyone would be exactly as quick as each other at everything? That seems pretty improbable. I am sure that you have faster days and slower days.

So there's a range. You're probably usually near one end of the spectrum for a few things here, so the range seems more pronounced to you than someone in the middle, but it's probably something like a normal distribution, where most people are kind of averagey. That's how most things like this usually wind up working out.

I'm certain that something this complicated is a combination of both genetics and upbringing. You can train to be faster, or to be more deliberate. But at the same time people will certainly have different innate predispositions to one style or another.

I walk fast too.
posted by aubilenon at 7:57 PM on August 23, 2006

I'm a slow person, and always have been. My mother used to joke that I should have a pet sloth.

However, I can think things through to a depth that none of my fast friends can, and when I do they are astounded that I've mysteriously come up with an answer that makes absolute sense to them but they could not have thought their way to.

From what I can tell, they don't shut up long enough to think of all the permutations. However, if I tell them that they claim that they have (speedily) done so. It's only when I take my time and confront them with something they hadn't considered that they have to step back and wonder.

FWIW, I type too fast for my brain to keep up, and it's usually the cause of my errors in MetaFilter posts.
posted by Kickstart70 at 8:03 PM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't know, I think it might be a regional thing. I grew up in the upper midwest and have always been a fast person. I moved to the deep South and it has been unbelievably frustrating for me how slow people are down here. When I go back home to the midwest, however, I find I'm back with people that move at my pace.

Just my observation.
posted by bristolcat at 8:08 PM on August 23, 2006

Response by poster: Your profile says you're in Brooklyn - did you grow up there?

I grew up in Southern Indiana, but most of my family came from big cities (New York, London). When I eventually moved to NYC, it felt like I had finally arrived somewhere that was "my pace" (except for the darn tourists).

random chance has given you a quick mind

Yes, but what does that MEAN? How can one mind be quicker than another? In what way quicker? Is something happening on the microscopic level? I know people have various sorts of biological clocks. Do some tick faster than others?

I also know that drugs can speed people up. What happens to people when they take speed? Maybe people like me are naturally like that?

When I drink alcohol, I slow down. Do some people naturally produce some sort of alcohol-like chemical? (I don't like drinking, much. When I get slow like that, I don't feel like me.)
posted by grumblebee at 8:21 PM on August 23, 2006

Response by poster: One common example of speed differences: TV-surfing. I switch channels so fast, that some people have accused me of flipping past stations without knowing what I'm missing. To them, I can't possibly be processing all the shows I'm flipping past. But I am. I never move on to the next station until I'm aware of what's on the current station. Somehow, I can figure out what show it is by seeing it for just a fraction of a second. How can I do this? Why can't (some) other people do it?

(As Kickstart70 pointed out, there are some BIG problems with my speed. As I'm flipping at lightning speed, I'll miss the nuances: Sesame Street, click, Citizen Kane, click, News, click... I might fail to notice that it's NOT Citizen Kane. It's a documentary about Orson Welles. My wife, who is at least as smart as me, but not as fast, is more likely to catch details like this.)
posted by grumblebee at 8:28 PM on August 23, 2006

It all comes down to focus. Your mind isn't fast, per se, but it doesn't take you long to think something over because you're very narrowly focused in on it. There's an inverse relationship between narrowness of focus and breadth of moment-to-moment experience. I'm not accusing you of being narrow-minded, but I know from this site it doesn't take you long to make up your mind about something.

I was born and raised in the South, and I talk kinda slow, I walk fast usually, but sometimes I mosey. I also delight in a broad perspective, as opposed to focus. Does that make sense?
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:41 PM on August 23, 2006

Interesting (because I know Grumblebee.) Ah the insights you get.

I think it's important to cultivate both fast, quick, thinking and slow, thoughtful thinking. One isn't better than another.

But it is reminicient of Douglas Adams and George Carlin.

If human beings don't keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months' consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favour of a new one. If they don't keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working.

Anyone that drives faster than you is an maniac and anyone that drives slower than you is a asshole

What I really suspect:
Our brains work faster than our mouths...and the patience to parse the information of others. Some people don't parse as fast as you. Some do.

Most minds are quicker in their field of expertise. For example, I suspect if you talk with someone about fluid physics dynamics, you'd seem slow to them, because that's their field of expertise.

Some people quantify and qualify information faster. Look at Ken Jennings (jeopardy winner). He had a wide recall of facts, and a fast recall of facts.
posted by filmgeek at 8:47 PM on August 23, 2006

Response by poster: It feels like you're onto something, Mr. Gunn. I do tend to shine a bright light onto the matter at hand -- and dim the rest of the lights in the room -- so that the subject is thrown into such sharp relief that it's only necessary to see it for a second to know what it is.

But this just better describes what I do (and what other people don't do?). It doesn't explain why I'm this way and what is going on "under the hood." I'm hoping someone will be able to shed some light on the neurology.

Mr. Gunn, I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but I don't really know what you mean by "a broad perspective." I think this is because my brain flips into one of two states: I'm either very focused (as you say) or I'm completely unfocused. When I'm unfocused, I'm not really in an intellectual state. I may be listening to music and just enjoying the sensations. (I don't do this sort of thing nearly enough -- I'm usually hyper-focused.)

This state is great, but I don't think it's what you're talking about. I assume you DO mean thinking -- just not in such a pin-pointish way. And THAT is what I can't imagine. It just seems like confusion to me: the state I'm sometimes in before I figure something out (when I'm unsure where to place my focus).

Please don't confuse focus with an obsession with minutiae. I'm willing to admit that I don't think "broadly", but that doesn't mean that I don't look at "the big picture." One can focus on that as easily as one can on "the small picture."
posted by grumblebee at 8:56 PM on August 23, 2006

I actually purposely cultivate slowness. I have a job that requires a lot of high level power negotiation - in fact just today I had such a meeting. As such I am constantly aware of all the tricks of the trade that negotiators can use to get the upper hand. (The previous sounds like 80's corporate America talk so allow me to clarify: I'm not in corporate america, but its my job to train disenfranchised groups of people to develop power and be able to go toe to toe with corporate types.)

I have found both through personal observation and study of the habits of powerful people that SLOW and silent are usually among them. Fast people seem insecure to me, like squirrels. Darting to and fro. To me the epitome of highly confident is the unhurried majesty of a lion.

In speech, the fast talkers always seem to be a weaker position to me. The greatest indicator of who is in control of a conversation is the strategic use of silence. Fast talkers abhor silence and want to fill each moment with more words. Powerful people take their own sweet time getting their point out, and when they ask a question, they absolutely allow a heavy silence to linger until it is answered.

As for speed in movement, I think of Charles-Maurice de Tallyrand who was forced to walk slow by an otherwise unfortunate limp turned it into a key component of a power persona that was capable of intimidating even Napoleon.

Of course, in the interest of disclosure, I am also from Kansas. Folks in general don't move too fast around here. I grew up around old farmers who would hang out at the co-op and have hours of conversation that sounded like this..

Farmer A: "Looks like rain"
5 minutes pass..
Farmer B: "Yep"

So it doesn't really answer your question other than to say perhaps sometimes personal pace is dictated by psychological factors like personal image, confidence, control etc.
posted by jlowen at 9:25 PM on August 23, 2006 [4 favorites]

The title of this question reminds me of my favorite knock-knock joke. It goes something like this:
A: "Knock-knock."
B: "Who's there?"
A: "Interrupting pig."
B: "Interr-"
A: "OINK!"
Derail aside, I'm a fast person too. I've lived in New York City for the past several years, which I'm sure has contributed, but beyond walking quickly, I'm not sure how. I read fast (and I can't stand to be somewhere without reading material for more than a couple of minutes), I type fast, I walk fast, and so on and so forth.

My mother works with exchange students who are going abroad, and one of the things that their orientation materials emphasize is that this "need for speed" is particularly American. To what extent this is true, I am not sure.
posted by anjamu at 9:57 PM on August 23, 2006

posted by qvantamon at 10:29 PM on August 23, 2006

I'm from the East Coast, and moved out West, and I feel like I'm caught in a perpetual time warp. Around western friends, I'm fast, impatient, ambitous. Around frings I know, I'm mellow, low-key, and shockingly uninterested in money or prestige. But I never really change.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:54 PM on August 23, 2006

I'm a fast person, by your definition, and also a smart Northeastern part-Ashkenazi Jew for whatever that's worth (Cohenim represent!). I spent the last few years living with a slow person (I think we used to say "contemplative" or "thoughtful" since slow sounds sort of like "retarded") and so I got to spend a lot of time learning the differences between my pace and his pace. I don't have any answer to the "why" part of it, but I can outline what the actual differences seemed like to me

- it had nothing to do with "speed" per se since he'd walk faster than me and, when he'd get going, talk almost as fast as I would
- to me it felt like momentum, like once I'd get going I could just plow through stuff -- a conversation, making dinner, paying bills -- and he'd be more in the moment than I would.
- I looked at it as a difference in values - the journey vs. the destination or something. I always try to sort of explore and discard a lot of options very quickly and he'd pay more attention to each individual step (and yes, I do the channel changing thing too "you're not even looking at those!")
- some of it was also language. it was easier to me to get my thoughts into English quickly, so I could talk off the top of my head faster. I got the impression that his thoughts weren't in English and there was some translation mechanism that took place to be able to talk about them.

Despite the speed thing, I'm not otherwise very "type A" in other ways. I live in rural New England where the pace is slower and I find it helps me balance somewhat and have more non-mediated experiences which give my super-processing brain a rest which, while it may not need it, it sometimes appreciates. I also would like to read more about this, though I found Faster sort of smarmy and irritating.
posted by jessamyn at 5:14 AM on August 24, 2006

I'm fast too, but I used pot to slow me down for a long time. Really liked it. Sorta miss it. Super fast now. Gotta go!

(Hehe, actually that's true. It was so refreshing to slow down a bit; most of the mistakes I make in life are from going too fast.)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:34 AM on August 24, 2006

jlowen - you sound like an interesting person.

I wonder if apparent personal speed (APS - new acronym!) has to do with the way our thoughts are abstracted. Although jessamyn mentions her less-fast roommate's "thoughts weren't in English", I've wondered if thinking in English actaully was slower than thinking directly in other abstract representations; jessamyn's comment has me re-considering this.

I myself can be very fast at some times, and slower at others, depending on how many things I'm considering at once, how I'm feeling, etc. Lately I've been getting more impatient with others, and I think it's going to affect (negatively) how easy they find me to work with.
posted by amtho at 6:56 AM on August 24, 2006

I always thought it was about where you grew up, though I have the Ashkenazi Jew thing going on too. I've always lived in big bustling cities, and though the pace in Europe is slower, it's still city life. Still, New York is the only place I don't feel like I'm on fastforward.

One of my biggest problems in the south and midwest is my tendency to bash headlong into automatic doors that are set to open at a slower walking pace.

I also talk fast and read at an insane pace, but take little pride in that: instead, I often worry that I'm babbling idiotically and missing nuance on the page. I've made half assed attempts to slow down, but it never really takes.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:35 AM on August 24, 2006

You try walking fast with three inch heels on, Grumblebee. And why don't you use some of that excess energy to pick your clothes up off the floor every once and awhile.


Your wife
posted by Evangeline at 7:49 AM on August 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

I was kidding, of course. I will say that I sometimes have a hard time keeping up with him. He comes up with ideas much faster than I can process them. I'm still thinking about the last thing he said, and he's two thoughts ahead of me. Maybe we complement each other.

But, in my defense, I'm a very fast walker when I'm not wearing heels, and slow-moving tourists drive me nuts too, although sometimes I think it's their seeming lack of purpose that's upsetting.

Oh, and I'm from Alabama.
posted by Evangeline at 8:51 AM on August 24, 2006

(Yaaay, welcome Evangline!)
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:54 AM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: He comes up with ideas much faster than I can process them.

Let's not confuse them with GOOD idea.
posted by grumblebee at 8:54 AM on August 24, 2006

Response by poster: ...or even good ideaS.
posted by grumblebee at 8:56 AM on August 24, 2006

Yes, well sometimes your mind works so fast you can't be bothered to proof. That's okay.

I think I have a real mix of slow and quick characteristics. When I first start a rehearsal process, I'm very quick to come up with a well defined character. Unfortunately, sometimes I don't move very far beyond that initial characterization. I get stuck on things.

When I wake up in the morning, I'm really UP. There's rarely a transition between sleep and wakefulness. Grumblebee has a much harder time.

So physically I'm fast but mentally I'm slow. Yikes.
posted by Evangeline at 9:09 AM on August 24, 2006

Here I am driving along in the right lane on the highway, laughing at all those people who race all the way to their destination in the "fast" lane, pushing at 40-50 kilometers an hour over the speed limit right onto the ass of whomever is in front of them before jumping on the brakes, and staying there until their impediment moves into the other lane, when they then hit the gas so they can catch up to the next car. To me these people seem so self-indulgent, oblivious to anyone else's - or the overall community's - need. But I guess they get where they're going sooner.

Me, I worry about other people's reactions, so I'm hesitant in everything I do, and fret about screwing up, so it slows me down. Fast people just seem to have a confidence that they can talk their way out of any shit that happens. Is there a paradox here that many of these fast people are also the people who are late for everything, while the slow people show up 45 minutes early?

It's dangerous territory attributing qualities to an ethic grouping, but last month I was in Montreal, touristing through a community of Orthodox Jews for the first time, and my impression was that there was busyness there, even when everyone was just wandering around the neighbourhood on a Saturday. But maybe that same sense would be there when viewing any urban community that has a distinct identification but is foreign to me, because they're busy living life while I'm on holiday.
posted by TimTypeZed at 9:11 AM on August 24, 2006

I understand your reaction to people who drive fast, because I'm a very nervous driver, and really, it's a matter of safety. But aren't the slow walkers on the sidewalk, walking three abreast and blocking the way for everyone else, just as oblivious to other people's needs? I need to get to work.
posted by Evangeline at 9:37 AM on August 24, 2006

Response by poster: Me, I worry about other people's reactions, so I'm hesitant in everything I do

I understand this. I naturally interrupt people, which I realize is horribly rude (though I don't intend rudeness), so I've worked hard to curb my natural behavior. But it's really tough. It means I have to think about this all the time while I'm talking.

Let's say Joe says, "How are you...?" The next word is 90% sure to be "today," and so -- if I'm not watching myself -- I'll say "I'm fine" before he's done talking. I'm not trying to interrupt him. In my speed-addled brain, he IS done talking. In other words, though the "today" comes from my brain, it SEEMS like he's said it already.

This can lead to other problems besides rudeness. Maybe he MEANT to say, "How are you coping with your new landlord?" My assumption screws up the whole conversation. Still, most of the time, people don't surprise me. I wait for the end of the sentence, which seems like it's too long to wait, and then for the pause at the end of the sentence, signifying that Joe is done and ready for me to chime in, and all I hear is "...today?" Which is what I KNEW he was going to say.

In Deborah Tannen's wonderful book, "You Just Don't Understand," she divides people into (1) High-politeness Speakers and (b) High-engagement speakers. (The latter interrupts.) She doesn't judge either type harshly, but discusses the confusions that occur when these types get in a conversation together.

In my (fast, verbal) family, we're high engagement. We all interrupt each other, and no one gets offended. In fact, if you DON'T interrupt other speakers, it seems like you're not interested in what they're saying. Interrupting (talking at the same time as someone else) is a sign that you're engaged with the conversation. If someone like me meets a High-politeness speaker, I'll think they're not interested in what I'm saying (because they don't interrupt me) and they'll think I'm rude (because I do).
posted by grumblebee at 10:55 AM on August 24, 2006

Please, Grumbles, don't ever visit Slo-Mo Home Depot.
posted by Alt F4 at 3:13 PM on August 24, 2006

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