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Business etiquette in Hong Kong

Business culture is more formal in Hong Kong than in many other parts of the world.

Our guide will help you to easily navigate the world of work in the region.

First impressions count, and it’s vital that you master business card etiquette. You’ll also need to get used to the fact that many business meetings are arranged two to three months in advance. It’s useful to remember that Chinese New Year celebrations take place during late January/February, so avoid arranging business meetings during the celebrations.

If you have learned any Cantonese or Mandarin, make your greeting in these languages, even if you must continue the rest of the conversation in English. This small gesture will be looked upon favourably. Cantonese is more commonly used than Mandarin.

Naming names

Getting your host’s name right is imperative. Three names are a Chinese tradition: the first is the family name, followed by the father’s name and finally the name of the person you’re talking to. Many Chinese will simply shake your hand and suggest you call them by their westernised first name. Simply follow their lead.

Saving face

The concept of ‘saving face’ is all part of the long-standing tradition of not causing embarrassment. This is one of the reasons why respect and manners are so important to business in Hong Kong. If you criticise someone in public, or you’re rude about their company or business methods, you won’t find it easy to do a deal with them. A little bit of people-pleasing in Hong Kong goes a very long way.

Respect is paramount

Your first business meeting will mainly consist of small talk, so try not to show impatience. When greeting your Hong Kong business contact, a light handshake is the norm, sometimes accompanied by a slight bow. It’s also customary to lower your eyes. Small talk is the Chinese way of determining if they will feel comfortable enough in your company to trust you and carry on with a long-term business partnership. Watch out if anyone sucks the air between their teeth; this means that your counterpart isn’t satisfied with your conversation or your suggestions. This may be the time to change your negotiating stance or even the tone of your conversation. Silence doesn’t denote dissatisfaction, and you will get used to gaps in the conversation the longer that you live in Hong Kong.

Businessmen and women tend to dress conservatively in Hong Kong — dark suits with light-coloured shirts predominate. You’ll also have to get used to the idea of lucky colours. Red is considered very lucky, but white is a colour of mourning. If you’re in any doubt about what colour tie to wear, you don’t have to pop down to the local astrologer. Simply ask one of your Hong Kong co-workers.

Observe local tradition

Good manners are essential to Hong Kong business etiquette. If you’re going to be late for a meeting you must inform people, though lateness is frowned on. Business hierarchy is important, so if you’re a junior member of a business team, don’t talk until the most senior member of the delegation has approached their counterpart. Try not to become too frustrated if business deals or enforcing contracts take a while — it’s the norm in Hong Kong. Also, you may discover that the actual signing of a contract is delayed until an astrologically auspicious date. Just go along with this, as there’s little you can do to speed up matters. In negotiations you will be expected to haggle — the art of the deal is respected here.

Business cards are important

The use and exchange of business cards in Hong Kong is an important part of any business meeting. Have your business card translated into Cantonese on one side of the card; the other can be in either your native language or in English. As the Hong Kong Chinese take business hierarchy seriously, always have your job title printed on your card. Luck comes into play with the colour of your business card. The letters should be embossed in gold. It’s always seen as a mark of respect to read your counterpart’s card before putting it away, and you should always ensure that your own business cards are in immaculate condition before presenting them. The fulfilment of a successful deal may be placed in jeopardy if you don’t observe the customs.