ASIA: WHERE TIME MOVES IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS. - Westerners race against time but business decisions in Asia are arrived at in a variety of ways. In his second article on cultural attitudes to time, Richard D Lewis explores the differences.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Westerners race against time but business decisions in Asia are arrived at in a variety of ways. In his second article on cultural attitudes to time, Richard D Lewis explores the differences.

Northern Europeans, Americans and Latins all share the belief that they can manage their time in the best possible way. In some Eastern cultures, however, the adaptation of man to time is seen as a viable alternative. Time is viewed neither as linear or subjective, but as cyclic. The evidence, they reason, is everywhere; each day the sun rises and sets, people grow old, die and are succeeded by their children. It has been this way for 100,000 years. Cyclical time is not a scarce commodity. As they say in the East, when God made time, he made plenty of it.

Accordingly, business decisions in Asia are arrived at in a different way from the West. Westerners typically expect decisions to be made quickly and current deals to be treated on present merit, irrespective of the past. An Asian cannot do this. The past formulates the contextual background of the present decision, about which in any case, as an Asian, he must think long term - his hands are tied in several ways. An American sees time that has passed without decision or action as 'wasted' time. The Asian, in contrast, does not see time racing away unused but as coming round again in a circle, where the same opportunities will re-present themselves - and when he is so many days, weeks or months wiser.

Hence, in business, the Western chain of action is matched by Asian reflection. The American goes home at the end of the day with all tasks completed. The Germans and Swiss probably do the same. The Frenchman or Italian might leave some 'mopping up' for the following day. The Thai attitude to time, by contrast, has been described as a pool that you gradually walk around. It is a metaphor that applies to most Asians, who, instead of tackling problems immediately in sequential fashion, circle round them for a few days - weeks even - before committing themselves. Hence, after a period of reflection, certain options may seem worthy of pursuing and others quietly dropped.

The Chinese similarly 'walk round the pool', but they also have a keen sense of the value of time. This is most visible in their attitude towards taking up other people's time, for which they apologise. Punctuality is also considered important - more so than in many Asian countries. Indeed, when meetings are scheduled between two people, it is not unusual for a Chinese person to arrive up to half an hour early 'in order to finish the business before the time appointed for its discussion'. It is also considered polite to announce shortly after the start of a meeting that one will soon have to leave - the aim, again, is to economise on their use of your time. The Chinese will not go, of course, until the transaction has been completed, but the point has been made.

There is clearly a double standard at work here. The Chinese penchant for humility demands that the interlocutor's time be seen as precious; on the other hand, they expect time to be liberally allocated to the consideration of the details of a deal and the nurturing of the relationships surrounding it. They frequently complain that Americans on business in China always want to hurry. The American sees the facts as having been adequately discussed; the Chinese feels that he has not yet attained that degree of closeness - the sense of common trust and intent - that is for him the bedrock of this deal and future transactions.

The Japanese are distinguished by the meticulous manner in which they segment time. This does not follow the American or German pattern, however, where tasks are assigned in a logical sequence aimed at maximising efficiency. The Japanese are not so much concerned with how long something takes but how time is divided up in the interests of propriety, courtesy and tradition. In a conformist and regulated society, the Japanese like to know at all times what point they are at and where they stand. The mandatory two-minute exchange of business cards between executives meeting for the first time is one of the clearest examples.

Indeed, the Japanese does not enter into any activity with the casual, direct manner typical of the Westerner. The American or northern European has a natural tendency to make a quick approach to the heart of things. The Japanese, on the contrary, must experience the 'unfolding' of the significant phases of an event. This is partly Asian indirectness, but also the Japanese love of tradition, the beauty of ritual and the compartmentalisation of procedure. Above all, when dealing with the Japanese one can assume that they will be generous in their allocation of time. In return you should try to do 'the right thing at the right time'. In Japan, form and symbols are more important than content.

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