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Guide to Cultural Traits for Expats in Hong Kong

Submitted: August 2013

A survey carried out by TripAdvisor in 2012 put Hong Kong in the bottom third ranking for friendliness. Many Hong Kong citizens have disputed the findings and have blamed the result on ‘newcomers’ from mainland China.

Hong Kong citizens are generally considered to be friendly, helpful and polite. This is borne out by long held traditions such as handshakes when first meeting and lowering one’s gaze during introductions, thus avoiding long eye contact. It is considered good manners in Hong Kong for introductions to be carried out in order of ‘rank’, and a lowered gaze when introductions are being made shows respect and is unconfrontational.

Hong Kong individuals have a long tradition of good behaviour to observe and respect family hierarchy. This respect is rooted in the teaching of Confucius which describe an individuals’ position in a family or business hierarchy. The same teaching describes the necessary behaviour to be displayed by each individual towards other people on the basis of their relationship to each other.

Etiquette is expected to be observed in all situations and it is customary to address individuals by their surname until invited to call them by their personal name.

When invited to a Hong Kong residence the guest is expected to present an appropriate gift to the host/hostess. Gift must be presented with both hands and will not be opened upon receiving them. It is important to familiarise oneself with the meaning of certain items as a Hong Kong individual might take offence to gifts such as red or white flowers, cutting utensils, clock or handkerchiefs and other certain items. The gift must not consist of an uneven number of items as many uneven numbers are considered unlucky. Gift wrapping should be elaborate and carried out with either red and/or gold gift wrap.

A guest should never take the last piece of any food left on the serving tray and offers of a second helping must always be refused at least once so as not to appear greedy. Unlike in many other cultures, burping is viewed as a compliment of the hosts’ cooking.

Committing a faux pas during greeting, gift giving, eating or in a business meeting will cause the perpetrator to lose face. ‘Face’ in this instance is the concept of quality that is reflected in an individuals’ reputation and dignity. Losing face is therefore considered to be a serious issue that could have wide-ranging consequences for the individual. Public reprimands, for example, would cause the individual to lose face. On the other hand, a show of respect or being complimented will positively increase a good reputation and the individual would consider themselves to have been given face.

Giving or losing face applies to individuals and businesses in equal measure and it is therefore important to be aware of the customs and traditions so important to a Hong Kong individual.

In private as well as in business settings, a meeting of any kind will usually be preceded by a fair amount of small talk to enable all parties to find out as much information about each other as possible. It is not uncommon for some of the questions to be of a very personal nature that might be considered rude in other countries.

When an expatriate in Hong Kong is faced with an unfamiliar situation at a dinner party or business meeting they should follow the lead of their Hong Kong hosts to ensure that no unintended offence is caused.




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