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Published on Dec 6, 2012 in China

An alternate Universe: How the Chinese View Time

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When we, as Westerners, view time, we view it as linear – from today, through tomorrow, and into future. It’s sequential. We begin a task and finish it before we begin another. It’s culturally what we’ve been taught, what we understand, and what we believe to be the case in any country. However, in China, time is viewed as polychromic and circular where the present is connected to the past. A person may begin a task and then start several more before completing the first. They may feel that there’s always enough time to finish the task and they’ll eventually get to where they want to be.

Quite often these cultural differences can cause business conflicts and affect relationships. Let me give you an example. You’re at an airline counter in China and speaking with an agent. The agent is patiently answering your questions when another person walks up and begins a dialogue, followed by another also asking that agent a question. Suddenly, instead of answering your question and then moving on to the next, the agent is polychromic and attempting to address all three issues. In the West we most likely find this type of behavior to be frustrating and rude. In China, it’s not uncommon. One is never too busy as it’s about the person and one’s relationship with that person rather than about linear time and schedules.

Other examples:

You have a business plan, which has been agreed to by both sides. It’s a rigid plan on how your joint venture is to move forward. However, your Chinese counterpart may view these plans as circular and view them as continually subject to change. He’s not rigid, he’s flexible. Plans are always subject to change. What’s been agreed to by your Chinese partner is more likely thought of as a general outline of the direction you’re headed.

You have an 8 AM breakfast meeting at your hotel, but its 8:30 before your Chinese guest greets you in the lobby. There’s no traffic, no cataclysmic event. No apology, he’s just late. You feel his conduct is insulting and that he’s being rude and insensitive. However, your guest’s point of view may be quite different. He may feel that being late is not rude, it’s just the way it is. Time isn’t rigid, it’s flexible. Therefore, you’re both meeting for breakfast as you agreed.

Understanding the Chinese view of time will help you avoid misunderstandings due to cultural differences and more readily allow you to establish long term relationships.

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