Country specific communication
There are a few things you should know if you are interacting with Hongkongers. The people of Hong Kong behave in a dignified and courteous way. They do not touch each other as much as westerners do, though they tend to stand quite close when talking. If you want to greet your business partner, a slight bow of the head is enough. Beckoning someone you do by raising your hand with the palm down and then moving your fingers and hand towards you. If you are poured a drink, thank him by drumming your fingers a few times on the table. Request your bill by making a writing motion with your hand. Something you should never do is wink at someone as it is considered very rude. Be alert if someone sucks air through his teeth, because it means that he is unhappy with what you just said. If possible, try to restate or alter your request as soon as possible.
As a stranger in Hong Kong, many things can lead to misunderstanding. For example businesspeople in Hong Kong tend to answer their mobile phones all the time. Even in the middle of important discussions. But this is not a sign of disrespect, which it might seem to you. Also, if you hear serious news such as a death in the family, someone may laugh. They do not mean this disrespectfully at all, but this is their way of covering up awkwardness.
Understanding the concept of ‘face’ (resting on reputation and status) is very important if you want to succeed in the business culture of Hong Kong. Making Hongkongers lose face, even unintentionally, can be disastrous for business negotiations. Your actions do not only reflect on your company, but also on your family and any other groups of which you are member. You lose face if you become angry, irritable or upset. Be modest and positive and do not let conflict occur. Since they are so afraid of losing face and they do not want to disrespect you, they will often not tell you they did not understand what you said. Best is to ask them a strategic question to check if they understood you (without them knowing you are checking them). Frankness is also not appreciated. Saying ‘no’ directly causes loss of face, disharmony and is considered rude. If they say things like “I will see what I can do”, it usually means no, but it leaves things open so you can reopen the issue at a later time. If they say something like “it is not convenient”, they mean they need time to obtain permission first. To direct questions, they may answer “yes” only to show that they heard what you said, not that they agree with you. All this can be quite challenging, so to minimize misinterpretations, you should pay close attention to facial expressions, gestures and overall body language.
During the greeting, Hongkongers tend to lower their eyes as a sign of respect. You do not have to imitate this gesture, but try not to make prolonged eye contact. Keep in mind that the handshake in Hong Kong is rather light, so make your handgrip less firm. If you are in a high position, you may introduce yourself to other guests, otherwise it is polite to wait for your host to introduce you. When greeting a group of people, make sure you greet the most senior person first. Address your business partner by an honorific title and his or her surname. Some of your business partners may adopt a more western name for you. This way it will be easier to remember and pronounce. Business cards are essential in Hong Kong business life. It is best to have English on one side of your card and Chinese on the other. Make sure the Chinese side is written in ‘classical’ characters (the written form of Chinese used in Hong Kong). Do not use the ‘simplified’ characters which are used in the mainland. It is also wise to put your logo on the card. The logo of a person or business has always been important in Chinese culture. It is the symbol of the firm and it may be more memorable than a name. When you are presented with a card do not put it in your pocket, but first examine it thoroughly. Afterwards place it in a card case and whatever you do, do not write on it! Business cards are offered and received with both hands.
The Hong Kong business people have a long-term view on business relationships, so a personal relationship is important to them. It is essential to maintain the relationship. In the first meeting there may be some small talk. Do not be surprised if you are asked some extremely personal questions. They want to get to know you better, so they feel comfortable enough to work with you. After the business deals are made, they are often celebrated with a dinner. When the feast begins, be patient and wait for your host to tell you where to sit. There is often a seating plan. You can only start eating when the host tells you to or when he starts eating. Food is served on a revolving tray and it is expected that you should try everything, but never take the last piece (this is impolite). Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest if you stop eating for a moment. Refuse a second serving at least once if you do not want to appear greedy. When you are finished eating, leave a bit of food in your bowl and place your chopsticks in the chopstick rest or on the table. Last but not least cover your mouth when using a toothpick.
If you are invited to someone's home, bring good quality sweets, fruit, flowers or imported spirits to the hostess. A gift may be refused one or two times before it is accepted. There are a few things you should avoid. You should not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils, because these indicate that you want to sever the relationship. Also, watch out with clocks, handkerchiefs or straw sandals. These are associated with funerals and death. Do not give red or white flowers and using the colours white, blue or black for wrapping paper is not advisable. Gold and red on the other hand are the lucky colours, so try to use these. In Hong Kong it is important to wrap gifts attractively. Watch out with odd numbers as many are considered unlucky and never give a quantity of four items, but instead eight as it is a particularly auspicious number in Hong Kong. A small gift for the children is always appreciated, but do not give green hats. Always present gifts with two hands and do not open gifts, unless your host did so first. Just thank the giver and put it aside for later.
Hong Kong people have a preference for fast facts and more to the point business conversations. They may interrupt you if they would prefer a quicker conversation. Another reason why time management is important in Hong Kong. Things need to be quick and efficient, as people start and finish on time. Nevertheless there will be some more small talk initially compared to North-Western European cultures. During the meeting, keep in mind that in Hong Kong (and many other Asian lands), silence is a form of communication. Try not to talk if a business colleague remains silent for a while. If you are the one talking, do not be afraid of longer silences, as it is a sign to them that you are thinking.
Hong Kong business people take a win-win approach to negotiating, because this is the best way for everyone to save face throughout the whole decision making process. They want the relationship to always stay intact throughout the negotiations. So it is best to remain calm, friendly, patient and persistent. Never take anything personally, even when they take on a quite aggressive style. Do not confuse this with bad intentions. It is important to show your commitment to the relationship. Keep in mind to emphasize the benefits for both sides, to remain flexible and to show willingness to compromise. These might have a positive effect on the negotiations. Never use logical reasoning or become argumentative, this will only make matters worse. Patience and creativity is very appreciated.
In Western cultures, businessmen like to do business with logics. They tend to decide by facts and figures. They are generally guided by objectives and certain other abstract factors. In Hong Kong, people with a high education and more experience abroad will have no problems with doing business this way. But there are a lot of Hongkongers who do not feel this way. This is because they like to do business by ‘feel’ and ‘hunch’, not with logics and facts. They need to know your partners and the philosophy of your company. If your counterpart approves of it, they are more likely to do business with you. Also try to keep the same teams when visiting your client, this builds up trust. Keep in mind that when they do business with you they emphasize the harmony of the whole picture rather than the first encounter and individual beliefs. Ultimately, when they disapprove of your idea, they will never show this to you directly because they want to maintain harmony.
Your business partners in Hong Kong tend to have different opinions while making a deal so it is advisable to have some extra alternative ideas at hand. This way your Chinese counterpart will not lose face when he rejects or alters one of your plans. If they try to decide on a deal, you should also give them some time to make up their mind. Do not expect them to give you an answer directly. Also because details can be brought to attention, the decision making process in Hong Kong might be influenced. Sometimes during the end of negotiations business partners still may ask for a major discount. This negotiation style asks for a different preparation, so it helps to hold back some strategic items. Finally, it is good to reflect upon beliefs like Feng Shui. Hong Kong is a nation of entrepreneurs who like to take some risk while doing business.
Management of hierarchy characteristics
Hierarchy is very important in Hong Kong. Everybody sticks to their tasks. They do not interfere with somebody else’s job. A superior keeps distance between him and his subordinates. For example it is unusual to have lunch together. If managers would treat their subordinates equally, both would lose face. Everybody knows their role in the company and respects authority. When doing business in Hong Kong, one can see a defined line of authority. Not understanding that this there, might result in a possibility to lose face. This hierarchal structure comes with a lot of etiquette. This even goes into details like consecution of the seating, the way people are introduced or the way people communicate with each other. Although western style equality is slowly gaining ground in Hong Kong, gender roles are still quite traditional. The amount of women in the work force is growing, but it is very unusual to see women in the more senior roles. Although the women that do, tend to be highly respected.
Authors: Joey A-Tjak & Farhana Faroque