How Americans and Chinese view time: What to take away

Ian SoderUncategorized0 Comments

American and Chinese people have historically viewed time in very different ways. These different ideologies greatly affect today’s relations between the two countries.

Time may not be as we know it. Different cultures can have different mindsets of how they view time. This is greatly true when addressing the relationship between China and the United States. China and the United States have very different histories; they perceive the present moment differently, and even how they view progress is not the same. This can have major implications on business deals, as well as understanding how a given society and its people operate in general.

Examining Differing views of time: Why Bother?

Directly believing and referring back to the fact that the world works around the American clock is quite incorrect. Yes, it is quite easy to believe so- the USD is the global currency, English is the main means of communication, and the U.S. is an economic powerhouse. If one wants to become more immersed in all things China, they will never reach their full potential without understanding how China’s perception of time truly shapes all present-day interaction.

Understanding these differences of how China views time differently than the U.S. can allow one to become more aware of particular details when analyzing everything around us- from business meetings to natural events to life and death itself. One can start to become more culturally sensitive and understanding, and envision the big picture rather than what is right in front of them. This will also prepare people if they ever get in a situation with Chinese, the decision-marking of their counterpart will make much more sense.

China has a different way of perceiving time in comparison to many other cultures. Due to their cyclical view of history, they can handle certain ups and downs with a sense of calm that other cultures such as America may lack. China places more importance on the long term versus what happens in the short term.

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China’s Ancient Civilization and how they view history as time

China’s history is SO much longer than the United States ( 5,000+ years to 250 years). Because of such an elongated history, Chinese have been more able to notice the patterns, consistencies, and repetitions in anything ranging from societal life to natural phenomena.

They have been thinking and observing the world in this way for thousands of years. For example, as early as 1000 BC in the Zhou Dynasty, the Mandate of Heaven established the natural order of ruling emperors, and a cycle of new emperors replacing old ones when it was time to do so. Natural disasters and famines indicated Heaven’s displeasure with a particular ruler. Essentially, the Mandate of Heaven gave a particular emperor permission to rule, and would also terminate their privilege to rule when the time came.

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An elongated history led to Chinese viewing time as being cyclical rather than linear. Chinese take more into account the broad ideas of how the sun rises and sets each day; how the seasons transition into one another; how people are born and eventually die with offspring continuing the process. The general public has received more exposure to the values instilled by leaders for a much longer time period. Values have become greatly embedded within society. For example, Confucian values of filial piety and respect to one’s leader have existed for centuries but are still incredibly prominent today, and enter both business and personal relationships.

America’s New Civilization and how they view modernity as time

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In contrast to China, the United States has a much shorter history than China. Thus, the very basis of the two countries is drastically different. While China is structured on several thousands of years of traditional values, America’s foundation is based off of breaking away from colonization by separating from Britain. Also, immigrants from other countries are the core of the American population. This, along with America’s rebellious (and divided) attitude towards the government, greatly differ from China’s greatly homogenous, law-abiding population. Both countries, however, believe that they are equally prosperous.

Taking no for an answer proves to be very difficult for Americans, since the beginning. Native Americans, Hawaiians, Filipinos, and any others in the way received little sympathy. Since gaining independence, there has always been a rush to expand. Americans thought they were truly destined to expand across the Americas and beyond into the Pacific Ocean. This mindset, in combination with a relatively short history and an incredibly diverse population with differing views, has certainly contributed to America’s view of time as being linear rather than cyclical.

The only direction that Americans can move in is forward, and if moving in another direction, then something is wrong. And, while moving forward, one shall not waste time. According to linguist Richard Lewis, one must move fast with time, or else they will miss out. Focusing on accomplishing individual tasks leading to a larger goal is normal; zooming out and examining the overall picture is not as common.


Handling the fluctuation of ups and downs

In America, if we experience a drastic crash in the economy or a crazy natural disaster, we are more likely to consider it as “the end of the world”. We often feel distraught in terms of what to do next. Chinese realize, however, that these negatives are simply one piece of the overall spectrum. Negatives will eventually be replaced with positives, such as a company receiving huge profit gains for the quarter, or even sitting outside and enjoying a perfectly sunny, cloudless day. The fact that Chinese historically are used to living through negatives and because of their long view of time, it enables them to be even more prepared and optimistic when handling them.

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Government versus Civilization

Unlike the Chinese, Americans care more about their rights within the democratic system rather than the longevity of the American civilization. Because America is a democratic nation, there is a lot more room for publicly expressing one’s own opinion. Therefore, the possibility of rebellion, instability, and arguing among the people is much more likely. This is especially true to addressing a leader like Donald Trump, which has divided the nation more than ever. Americans cannot fathom the idea of having Donald Trump as president, as he degrades people’s freedoms, especially those of color.

However, this is different when coming from the Chinese mentality. The Trump presidency would be viewed more as just one negative period of time in the overall American presidential cycle. The Chinese would not worry as much. They know that because time operates in a cycle, there will be another Barack Obama in the future. It is not the prosperity of individual leader that is the focus; rather it is the prominence of the civilization that gathers more importance.

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Different Business Etiquettes

For Americans, meetings always start and finish at a specific time. Everything planned for the discussion needs to be addressed within the time frame of the meeting. However, in Chinese culture, it is not uncommon for people to meet before a meeting for discussion, or for a meeting to start a few minutes late. Also, the Chinese often can spend a lot of time talking about a particular business deal, to the fact that it goes over the scheduled ending time.

As Lewis notes, the Chinese often criticize Americans of leaving too early in a meeting, without the main points being fully discussed. Also, he notes that Americans can expect the Chinese to make a quick decision based on the present. This in reality is very hard for the Chinese to do. They have to take more of an account of the past, as the past is an essential background for the present.

Business meetings are very social, and the business matters can be secondary to two opposing parties to get to know each other better. Business meetings often entail a crazy night of dinner, KTV (karaoke), and drinking.


Time is money

In America, the only way to move is forward. There is a frequent race towards progress and development. Within this process, money definitely is to be made. And, in the words of Richard Lewis, you have to make money, unless you are nobody. In order to organize how much money the make, Americans often talk about their time exactly like their money: by wasting, spending, budgeting, and saving it. Wasting time is very frowned upon by Americans, because time is an expensive commodity.

In China, the process of making money is also very important. The Chinese however do not necessarily equate their spending of money with their spending of time. According to Lewis, the Chinese do not see time as being wasted per say, but again see time as coming back around in a circle, as the same opportunities will recur again when people are days, weeks, or months wiser or more ready. In America, fulfilling the goals of the next quarter and increasing profits is a major focus. However, the Chinese will even accept a loss for a given quarter given that it will positively keep the long term goals in balance.

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China perceiving time in a much different way than Americans do. Their cyclical view of history allows them to handle both negative and positive events with a sense of calm that America and other Western cultures may struggle with. China places more importance on the long term versus what happens in the short term.

America on the other hand views time as being linear, in pursuit of profit, progress, and development. Time is literally money, and one has to prioritize their time to make the most money possible. An unproductive meeting is seen as waste of time rather than being viewed positively. The reason for this is largely due to China’s extremely long history in comparison to America’s. Other large contributing factors include China’s Confucian values and Communist Government. Instead, America’s democratic system creates space for more individual success. However, it also leads to a more divided nation as well.

Americans and Chinese certainly have differing views of time. In order to build understanding and respect for both nations, acknowledging how they perceive and deal with time is essential. If you would like to learn more, please reach out to us. Or, simply implement more of the Chinese circular way of envisioning time into your daily life!

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