Thinking in Circles

When it comes to solving problems and finding solutions I’ve noticed something peculiar/particular about the Chinese mindset which I’ve been trying to articulate for some time. I don’t claim to be an anthropologist or anything more than a curious observer of life but for what it’s worth here’s my theory…

Problem -> Solution

The western way of problem-solving is usually fairly direct and focused. We articulate a problem and then define a solution with all the steps which are needed to be taken to reach the end goal. We also generally appreciate constructive criticism and embrace suggestions from anyone who has a good idea regardless of their position within a hierarchy.

The Chinese seem to take a rather different approach. Instead of tackling a problem head-on, they will talk around it in circle-like discussions until a mutually agreeable solution is found. This seems to be partly about maintaining “face” (Mianzi) and not upsetting anyone by being indirect whilst also allowing people to steer a conversation in a direction of their choosing. The waters get even more muddied because even after you’ve agreed on a course of action verbally the likelihood of the other party changing direction without warning is still possible (hence being very specific is crucial).

To give an example three people asked a member of my team a similar question at different times. He gave each person a different answer each tailored to what they wanted to hear. Chinese rarely say no even if that’s what they’re thinking so learning to mind-read is a skill well worth investing time in! I’m sure this is why many attempts by foreign companies to enter China fail so spectacularly.

Of course, it’s not always as black and white as I’ve made it out to be above; these are just general trends observed during my time in China so far. I’ve started reading a book called “Think Like Chinese” which provides some illuminating insights into how Chinese thinking is wrapped up in their history, Confucian philosophies and language.

Have you had any experiences like this or have tips on how to deal with them?

David avatar

15 responses

  1. Thanks Robinson, I’ve corrected it.

  2. Robinson Thomas avatar
    Robinson Thomas


    Face is not guanxi.

  3. I can’t see why you should “run circles” like that if you can see the goal up ahead anyway. Strange culture indeed.

  4. Hi Aku, it isn’t necessarily that you can always see the way ahead but the way in which you reach the solution.

  5. yaoyao avatar

    David, you really know a lot about china,most of us do think in circles.
    We are educated to think directly in school when we are a child.
    But we will still think in circles when we become an adult.
    Maybe it is because our history,culture,atmosphere around us and so on.
    But we found that it is really an effective way of thinking in china.
    Many foreigners regard that it is ridiculous to think in circles(it seems that you understand the reason ^-^ )
    And as more and more foreigners come to china nowadays,we are trying to change our way of thinking to a certain extent.

  6. Marc avatar

    Hi David,

    I came across a mention of the book, ” Think like Chinese”, while talking with a Chinese person here in the UK the other day; “Googled it”, and found your note of it here! Do you think it’s worth reading?…Maybe more importantly…would you say that your day to day contacts with the working and socialising Chinese are accurately portrayed in the book, especially within the younger generation?

    Do you think that you are progressively seeing changes in the ways of Chinese thinking the longer that you are in China? and do you feel that you have taken on any “non linear” ways of thinking? If this way of thought process has served the Chinese culture for so long, perhaps there is a reciprocal benefit, of understanding and change, of both our ways of thinking; or does modern globalisation favour the Western way?

    1. Hi Marc – glad to hear my site is rising in the ranks! I wrote a long reply to your message but then my browser crashed so I’m afraid this will be a little shorter!

      I would definitely recommend the book, it’s a fascinating insight into Chinese culture which does a good job of explaining why things are the way they are and lots of examples of how to deal with various situations. The one health warning I would give is that in China you will find all extremes so its not a good idea to generalise too much.

      I have found younger people easier to deal with than the older generations who are often stuck in their ways. Over the past few years I think I have become more patient in dealing with the differences and generally being a little less direct with some people can help (although still making your expectations clear).

      It will be a little sad I think if China does become “westernized” but I suppose there is a certain inevitability about it to a degree. English is already the global language and given the vibrancy of western popular culture its only natural that people are drawn to it (in the same way the China’s differences originally attracted me).

      Of course the best way to understand all this stuff is to move out here and see for yourself!

  7. Rich Ivory avatar
    Rich Ivory

    The price of the book (200 pages) in the US is unbelieable. It ranges from 100 – 200 USD for a hardback copy or you can buy it from Australia for 35 USD plus 25 for shipping and handling. I would love to read it but not at these prices. Any thoughts

    1. Take a look at the UK site,, I got hold of a second copy a few months ago… (after also purchasing one from the US, for about $65 + $16 p&p). The bookdepository copy cost about $22, free worldwide postage. If not in current stock, you can request email notification.

      A very straightforward, illuminating and helpful book.

      1. Rich Ivory avatar
        Rich Ivory


        Just wanted to let you knowthat the bookdepository came up with a copy for 25.06. Free shipping and handling. Thank you for the suggestion.

  8. Gina avatar

    Chinese are very curious about foreigners, it is not difficult to communicate with them. But their way of thinking is based on face saving or face giving. They are not reliable people. They never say “no”, not to lose their face, so you never know if they really can do it for you. You understand it is their culture and you are hopeless. My friend who tried business in China for 2 years, recently said “There is no place for honest people in China”. All is based on face and relations….

  9. Michael Murphy avatar
    Michael Murphy

    I’ve been living in China now for 50 days. I’m astonished at how much the Chinese change their mind. As an American, it was extremely frustrating at first. Now, its a daily occurence. I’m shocked if someone doesn’t change their mind. I’m teaching at Zhengzhou University. I keep my calendar on iCal on Macbook Air. Last week, (in ONE week), I had 9 changes to my daily calendar. Time changes, room changes (for my classes), DAY changes (they required us to make up ‘holidays’ on Saturday and Sunday), floor changes, etc. One thing I’m very shocked at is how disorganized the Chinese are in their higher educational system. The other thing is, when they make changes, they don’t communicate those changes until minutes before the change is to take place. I was informed just hours before that I was to ‘make up’ holiday classes on Saturday and Sunday. I like the fact that they get up early and take a nap almost every afternoon (works for me just fine). The constant changing is something you simply have to accept and get used to. I’ve accepted and now, expect it.

  10. Mr. DC avatar
    Mr. DC

    I have to agree with you that the Chinese think in Circles. After living in Beijing for 20 years and also travelling around the world to meet different Chinese clients, I believe there is a reason of this tendency. If you watched The Apprentice, you will find out that at the end of each task, there were always a lot of frustrations and dissatisfaction from the project team members that mostly likely to impact the next project. It is like you won a war but lost the ally and with greater cost.
    The Chinese values the trust and long term relationship, therefore they tend to avoid direct approach that could cause unnecessary/ unintentionally offense to another party until both reach the mutual consensus. As we can see now why the America is making so many enemies while the China has the Africa and the Middle East as their business partners.

  11. Jade avatar

    Very clearly explained.
    Took me a year to wrap my head around things. Super confusing and frustrating at first.


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