Hong Kong: Bridging the gap
Fast paced, busy Hong Kong is the bridge between China and the West. Yet doing business here is not quite the same as it is on the mainland – and at the same time, not as ‘westernized’ as you might think. Hong Kong Chinese are inherently different from those in mainland China – more open to risk taking, more entrepreneurial. Sometimes, they’re seen by mainland Chinese as snobbish. Yet, as you might expect, the two also share many cultural characteristics. Here are our tips on how to make a good impression in this dynamic place.
- The business world is dominated by guanxi, a system of relationships and mutual obligations between contacts. Cultivating relationships is important – and you should be prepared to do favors for contacts, as they will for you. This is not considered corrupt, just part of the fabric of society.
- Understand the concept of face. Face can be earned, given and taken away. It is inextricably linked with personal honor. Never do anything to cause another person to lose face, or anything that will cause you to lose face, like losing your temper in a meeting.
- Always maintain your own face by concentrating on your appearance and demeanor. Dress smartly and carry good accessories – a designer bag or polished shoes will be noticed. Try to appear calm and modulate your voice. Excessive displays of emotion in the workplace are frowned upon. The official language is Cantonese but most people in business speak English. By all means learn a few phrases of Cantonese to show willing – but the reality is, most Chinese will reply to you in English.
- Hong Kong Chinese are influenced by Confucianism. Hierarchy is observed and the older generation is respected and revered. Duty, loyalty, respect and filial piety are all important. Show respect to elders and observe the hierarchy within companies. Even if your own business has a flatter structure, help your Hong Kong counterparts to understand who is in charge.
- Meetings and negotiations are carried out in large groups. Delegations are matched evenly by rank to the other side. Hierarchy should be observed in meetings; the most senior person controls the conversation and negotiations. Lower-ranking members of the hierarchy do not interrupt or disagree. If lower ranking members of your team openly contradict the most senior person, that person will lose face in the eyes of the Hong Kong delegation, so be careful.
- Prepare to be tough in negotiations. Hong Kong Chinese value a soft sell and a hard buy. They are tough negotiators and will employ all kinds of tactics, from a stony silence (to unnerve Westerners) to walking out of the room in a statement of disapproval. As in mainland China, the communication style is indirect, so a person may not say what they mean – and may give a vague answer to a question in order to save face. Learn to read between the lines.
- Be punctual – there is a certain ‘time is money’ attitude in Hong Kong. Business decisions can be made surprisingly fast, too; efficiency and a willingness to take risks are admired. Decisiveness is much admired in business.
- Do not overlook, or mock the Chinese attitude to superstition. Blue and white are regarded as unlucky, as are certain numbers, like four, and symbols. Office and home layouts are dominated by the ancient system of feng shui, far more so in Hong Kong than on the mainland. Lion statues, fish in tanks, strategically placed plants in offices, specific, auspicious dates chosen for product launches – everything is governed by feng shui. Western managers may laugh it off as an indulgence for their staff but most companies in Hong Kong employ a feng shui master and conduct an annual audit.
- Gambling is legal but tightly regulated in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, Hong Kong Chinese are enthusiastic gamblers. If you are invited, say, to nearby Macau for a corporate golf day, be prepared to play for money.
- Business entertaining is important as the corporate world is governed by relationships. Dinners are usually for relationship-building, not doing deals. Prepare to be entertained and to reciprocate. Hosting a lavish banquet is a sign that you are committed to a long-term relationship, as is the desirability of the venue; take advice before choosing somewhere as image is important. Alcohol will be usually drunk at dinners – but do not over-indulge and lose face.
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