Hong Kong Culture
It's now a long time since Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony, but the influence on the culture of Hong Kong remains undeniable. Legal frameworks, politics, the capitalist economy, were largely based on British systems and ways. Although China is now in control, the HKSAR still carries on as normal for the time being. Western values remain entrenched in Hong Kong's very fabric. Western influenced modern architecture is everywhere. Signposts are in English as well as Chinese. This, among many other factors, makes the transition to living in Hong Kong very easy for a new expat arrival.
However, Hong Kong is still traditionally Chinese at its core. Behind the façades of the skyscrapers, the Chinese culture is ubiquitous, meaning some understanding of the Hong Kong people is very important if expatriates are to avoid some common cultural gaffes. This overview is aimed at briefing expats.
Linguistically, English is one of the official languages and many Hong Kong Chinese speak English with varying degrees of proficiency. There is a large community of native English speakers in the territory working in language schools. Cantonese is the de facto official Chinese dialect spoken by nearly everyone. Since the handover to Chinese rule, there have been efforts to generate wider acceptance of Mandarin.
A page on Hong Kong culture couldn't possibly go without mentioning 'face'. This sociological concept is s cultural cornerstone found in many Asian societies. It's as difficult to explain to foreigners as it for them to understand it, but we'll try.
'Face' can be seen as a reflection of a person's dignity and reputation amongst his/her peers or colleagues. It can be lost, damaged, elevated or given. It's actually not something limited to individuals. Companies and organisations have 'face' and such bodies can also gain or lose face. You can give face to someone by complimenting them, showing your respect for them, or boosting their self esteem. In turn, this can also boost your own face. It must be done with sincerity though.
Publicly criticising someone, or insulting them, can cause serious damage to someone's face i.e. reputation and social standing. You should not cause someone to lose face unless you really mean it and understand the consequences. For this reason, minor issues are best dealt with in private. Unfairly, or unnecessarily causing loss of face will not be forgotten in a hurry and would actually do as much harm to you as the person you are criticising. Don't underestimate this aspect of Hong Kong culture.
Workplace culture in Hong Kong is similar to the West in many ways, thanks largely to British rule for such a long time. However, you should not make the mistake of assuming the business mind of the locals is the same as yours. Taking the time to observe, ask a trusted colleague, or just follow the lead of others is vital if you're going to fit in and avoid going against the grain without even realising it.
For example, saving face is crucial in the Asian mind and if you confront someone for their mistake aggressively or in an obvious manner, thus making them lose face in front of their colleagues, you will have likely made yourself a long term enemy, as well as making the rest of the office look at YOU in a negative way. Try to settle things privately and quietly.
Suits are worn in most offices, or at least shirt and tie. Trouser/skirt suits and dark shoes are usually appropriate for women. In fact, on the subject of women in the workplace, women are often key figures in Hong Kong business circles, often holding very senior positions in both the private and public sector. As a result, there are a number of professional women's organisations set up for women to network etc.
Business cards are widely used in Hong Kong business culture. They are usually printed in English on one side of the card and Chinese on the other. You should hand your card to the other person with both hands (as with anything made of paper). Family names are written first.
Christmas and Chinese New Year office parties are major events, usually celebrated in hotels or some kind of club. The exchange of gifts it's commonplace and for Chinese New Year, you are expected to hand out good luck money (Lai See) in red envelopes to anyone junior to you. Small amounts in small banknotes is appropriate. Wish them 'Kung Hei Fat Choi'.
Gifts are never opened in your presence, nor are they discussed, only a 'Thank You'
Working hours - It is a Western concept to try and leave the office as soon as possible (i.e. 5 p.m.). Hong Kong staff with actually view their office or workspace as an extension of their home, where they are able to work with less distraction than they would experience at home, therefore, working late into the evening is a way of life here. Working late makes them feel more likely to be recognised, rather than rushing to get the job done by five o'clock.
It is not considered rude to be asked about your salary, or similar personal questions about money.
If your boss sucks air loudly between their teeth or lips, adjust your approach or request immediately. This gesture shows great displeasure at you.
Drinking and toasting is a very important part of business culture. Everyone is expected to toast when the time comes and it is extremely impolite to refuse.
Use only black and white materials during presentations. Colour is highly significant in Chinese culture and you should be very careful how you use it.
Most Chinese people will greet you with a handshake, although you should accompany this with a slight bow as a sign of respect to their own culture. Strong handshakes are not the norm and it's quite normal for it to be quite 'limp'. Greet the most senior staff member first, as it's important to recognise hierarchy.
The above is only meant as a brief introduction to the essentials of business etiquette, is by no means meant to be a set of hard and fast rules and may not even be applicable at all times.
- Formal, well made dark suits are the norm in the business world, for both men and women
- Arrive at meetings on time. If you're running late, call
- The most senior people should be introduced first
- Greetings are with a handshake, but usually not the firm kind of handshake westerners are accustomed to. It should be with a nod, or slight bowing of the head, and is usually this is when business cards are exchanged. Avoid lingering eye contact
- Make some small talk before getting down to business. Chinese people will want to feel comfortable with your personality before talking business
- Business relationships are started with the long view. Poor behaviour is unlikely to be forgotten. Losing your cool is a serious mistake. Don't forget 'face', you will be the one losing it if you get angry
- Silence is as important as words in business dealings
- It's possible that the dates on important paperwork will be set by a Chinese astrologer
Business cards are probably more important in Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world. Everyone uses them, no matter what their position in the company. Everyone carries them, ready for an exchange of details at meetings. Failure to be prepared for this is going to make you look pretty stupid and you'll effectively be flushing the business relationship down the toilet before you've even started.
There is also a strict etiquette associated with the exchange of cards:
- Do not discard anyone's business card in front of them, even if they are a low on the pecking order and you don't think you'll be needing the card. To do so is the equivalent of slapping them across the face and causes great offence
- You should not write on the card, or deface it in any way. It's only OK to do this if invited by the person giving it to you. Show respect for the person by respecting their business card
- When receiving a card, take it with both hands, directly facing the person giving it to you. This custom is becoming more relaxed these days, but is still there to some degree
- Examine the card before storing it
- Do offer your card in return
- Hand your card to the recipient with the typeface facing them
- Your cards should be in pristine condition
- Make sure you go to a meeting armed with enough cards for lots and lots of exchanges
If you run out of cards, you can get some more made in next to no time, almost anywhere in Hong Kong. Typically, one side will be printed in English, and the other side in Chinese. The Chinese characters are often printed in Gold, as it's an auspicious colour.
There are some cultural and workplace peculiarities and idiosyncrasies you should be aware of.
If you have been sent to Hong Kong by your employer, or have been offered a job by a local employer, it is probably the case that you have some kind of special skill or work experience, in which case you will represent a considerable investment for your employer, who will want a good return on that investment. As a result, long working hours are commonplace, often in excess of 50 hours per week. You will be expected to pull your weight in this regard and should expect to work late on a regular basis.
English is widely spoken in the workplace but local staff invariably communicate with each other in Cantonese. Business cards are all the rage in the territory and they are exchanged almost as often as the handshake.
Your social life will be more involved with your work life than you may be used to. Locals consider workplace and business relationships to be an important part of their lives and climbing the ladder or moving your business relationships forward may be hard for you if you try to keep work completely separate from your personal life.
In truth, the days of the classic expat posting in Hong Kong are in decline and you are more likely to be in a role that integrates you into the local working environment, rather than an aloof privileged expat in the old fashioned sense. While there are still many tens of thousands of Westerners in Hong Kong, the numbers are lower than they once were.
Family Values and Friendships
Confucianism plays a strong role with family and personal relationships. It stresses loyalty, sincerity, duty etc and above all, filial piety (meaning respect for parents and ancestors). It may take you quite some time to become accustomed to just how important this is in Hong Kong Chinese Culture, as the often subtle signs may go unnoticed by westerners.
If you are invited to someone's home, you should bring a gift, particularly in the first instance. You don't have to go overboard, but don't buy something of a low quality. It could be some high quality confectionery, or an imported whiskey for example. DO NOT give anything with a cutting edge, such as knives, as this will indicate your desire to end the relationship. You should not give clocks or handkerchiefs (associated with death). Be careful with flowers, as the wrong colour could cause all kinds of misunderstandings.
There are so many ways to cause misunderstandings, it can be mind boggling.
- Elaborate gift wrapping is as important as the gift itself. Do not use black, white, or blue paper. Gold and red are good choices, as they are considered lucky.
- If you are giving flowers, it's best to seek advice when you actually purchase them
- If you're giving a gift that comprises multiple items, do not give odd numbers. Never give a quantity of four. However eight items of the gift is considered very lucky and auspicious. It will be seen as a way of conveying good fortune to the recipient
- Hand the gift to the hostess where appropriate and do so with both hands. It may take a couple of attempts as it's sometimes customary to refuse the gift at first. The gift will be put to one side and opened later
Table manners are usually informal. There are a few rules and etiquettes but don't get all hung up on this one, just observe what others are doing.
- Wait to be seated
- Do not start eating before the host
- Try everything. Do not eat the last item on the plate
- Show respect for chopsticks and learn to use them properly
- When you're full, leave a little food in your bowl. Clearing your plate indicates the host has not fed you well enough and you're bowl might get filled again!