What is the time difference between Switzerland and China?

In February 2013, scholars from University of Zurich and Harvard University published an article on behavioral patterns of users of an online scheduling tool - Doodle. Starting from Switzerland, Doodle has already claimed international reputation. However, this app is more than just a set of program code. It is a mirror reflecting people’s time perceptions and scheduling habits. So here comes the question: Do Chinese and Swiss differ in these two aspects? If yes, in what way, what problems does this cause, and what can we do to get a solution? We will make a quick review of Doodle, this article and experiences of our swissnexers.

doodle.com starts operation in 2007 and is based in Zurich, Switzerland. It can coordinate meetings, reunions and various events. To be a Doodle guru is simple, you open the app, select available time slots to start a poll, send an email or the link of the poll to all participants, get feedback, and make a decision. Easy enough, isn’t it?

(a screenshot of the interface from doodle.com

(a screenshot of the interface from doodle.com

The co-authors, Katharina Reinecke, Minh Khoa Nguyen, Abraham Bernstein, Michael Näf and Krzysztof Z. Gajos, referred to studies conducted by G. Hofstede and R. Inglehart to evaluate different countries’ overall inclination to be Collectivistic or Individualistic, and their tendency to value Survival or Self-expression.

Figure 1  The deeper colored, the more self-expression-oriented / the more individualistic

Figure 1 

The deeper colored, the more self-expression-oriented / the more individualistic

From these two maps, we make the assumption that Switzerland and China belong to two different sides - while Swiss people care more for self-expression and tend to be individualists, Chinese people gives more importance to consensus and are likely to stick to group opinions. If 100 means extremely individualistic and 0 means the opposite, which makes 50 neutral, Chinese score approximately 20 and Swiss around 70.

The aforementioned article used data from 1,536,022 random polls created in mid-2011 and in late 2012 and created Doodle users’ response patterns in different countries and regions. Indeed, there are all levels of differences among the studied countries. Take this as an example:

Q: How long before the event will you create a poll for it? 

Figure 2

Figure 2

On average, Chinese people say two weeks whereas Swiss people need at least a month. The country that most closely follow the pattern of Switzerland is German. Countries that resembles China includes Thailand and Singapore. Noticing how geographically close these countries of similar patterns are, one cannot but relate this results to their frequent cultural exchange.

Q: How much effort do people make to reach consensus in polls? 

Figure 3

Figure 3

Doodle supports two types of polls - open polls, and hidden polls. Most people make efforts to reach agreement in group decision making. In a hidden poll, you will not see other participants’ responses thus much freer from external influences and more likely to give out candid, or in another way “self-centered”, answers. It is almost universal among countries that people obtain much more consensus in open polls. As you examine the above chart, you may see the fraction of consensus options in open polls are nearly always higher than that in their hidden counterparts. 

We can use the difference between open and hidden polls to measure “effort to reach consensus” in one country. Differences of most countries listed in Figure 3 (including Switzerland) is around 10 but that of China reaches up to 25. 

The information in Figure 2 and 3 consolidates the conclusion that Swiss people likely to schedule ahead and that Chinese, when making decisions about time, are more likely to take other group members’  availability into consideration. 

A less representative survey took place in swissenex China’s Shanghai office few days ago to prove the validity of the Doodle article. Interestingly enough, all four Swiss interviewed responded that they create a Doodle poll one month before the proposed date and all two Chinese made an estimation of two weeks to prepare for an event. Exactly the same result as the article shows.

Two of our Swiss interns made an interesting observation about how people work differently in Switzerland and China. They both gave up keeping agenda after started living in China because too many unexpected things happen in this country. One of them currently studying in a university in Shanghai recalls that one time he was asked to extend one week in a study project by his professors. But to be honest, the same thing probably won’t make much impression among Chinese students simply because this is too much a commonplace. Less structured life, that’s what Swiss people are likely to face when they start working in China.

Last but not least… 

Apparently, differences exist and persist. Globalization and Internet are major catalyst in homogenizing people across the world. However, work done by our scholars and the Doodle team has cast doubt on the conviction that Internet users now act uniformly. We are still unique and distinct. But as we learn more about our differences, we should raise our vigilance against bias and misinterpretation. If you are Swiss, please allow more time for your Chinese colleagues to respond your invitation because they may not be used to structure their life one month ahead. If you are Chinese, you can be equally or even better appreciated if, with your Swiss friends, you frankly share your opinions in an appropriate way.

Figure 1, 2, 3 are from Doodle Around the World: Online Scheduling Behavior Reflects Cultural Differences in Time Perception and Group Decision-Making, http://people.seas.harvard.edu/~reinecke/Publications_files/Reinecke_Doodle.pdf

Thank you all, Swiss and Chinese swissnexers who have been always very supportive. It’s you who make our office delightful and our time productive.

- Contributed by Siwei Yang, Junior Project Leader Social Media @swissnex China