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How the Chinese Manage Time: Yin, Yang and the Importance of Caves

An hour has sixty minutes in any culture or country around the world. There is the actual, fixed way of marking, measuring and managing time shared by everyone. At the same time, there is the subjective impression that we have of the passing of time. Why does an hour in the dentist’s chair feel like an eternity while a romantic weekend in Venice ends all too quickly?

In the business world where a “time is money” mentality is prevalent and people are paid for performance, set phrases such as “Let’s do lunch!” have become polite expressions absent of any true intention. The equivalent expression in Chinese would be “Have you eaten yet?” “ 你吃了没有“ , an inquiry to which no one really expects an answer.

As a linguist, intercultural trainer and coach, I believe that these now “empty” expressions are carried over from days gone by when people naturally had more time to give and to share with each other. Who doesn’t secretly yearn for a life that was richer, simply because we could make time for ourselves and others?

Increasingly multinational companies are providing coaching to help executives adjust to new or challenging environments and enhance their performance. Part of the benefits of the coaching process is helping managers reconnect and gain insight on how they decide what is really important and manage their time.

Any Westerner interested in doing business in Asian markets is hopefully familiar with the monochronic (linear) and polychronic (spontaneous) tendencies of certain cultures as introduced by Geerte Hofstede in the 1960s. People from monochronic cultures (the Swiss, Germans and Anglo-Saxons) have greater respect for time schedules while those from polychronic cultures (Asians, southern Europeans, Africans and Latin Americans) generally give priority to relationships and take a more relaxed approach to the clock. This information, while of interest to international MBA students, does not really bring much insight when coaching individual clients.

Phillip Rosinski, in his important book, “Global Coaching”, explores time management patterns in a manner which is more meaningful than the traditional monochronic/ polychronic dichotomy. He describes cultures where time is a limited commodity “scarce” in contrast to those where it is viewed as unlimited or “plentiful”. In a coaching conversation, I find this approach is more helpful when it comes to building awareness.