Understanding business etiquette in Hong Kong

By Kristine Stewart

In international business, Hong Kong is a financial centre, bridging the East with the West. Still, in many transactions, etiquette can be misunderstood or overlooked, and a misstep can quickly damage relationships. Through my experience teaching Western etiquette to clients from a range of industries and backgrounds, I have provided three of the most commonly asked questions – or complaints – and how to best deal with these situations in Hong Kong’s business culture.

1. The handshake: Some clients complain that handshakes in Hong Kong are too weak, some say they are too strong, some don’t like the positioning, duration, and so on. Here is what you need to know for an adequate handshake:

  • Stand up (regardless of if you are male/female, junior/superior) and make sure you are standing square to the person you are meeting (feet and shoulders facing them)
  • Make eye contact (do not look at their hand), smile, and say their name during the introduction
  • Hands should meet at the web (the space between your thumb and index finger), not only at the fingers
  • Do not do “the politician” (using both hands) to show your gratitude, nor “the bone crusher” (an overly firm handshake) to show your authority or enthusiasm

If someone’s handshake is softer, it does not mean they are weaker, nor does a strong handshake mean one is domineering. Sometimes it just comes down to cultural differences. I worked with a company where the bosses complained that their staff’s handshakes were too weak. Later on, some of the staff mentioned that it was not in their culture to make physical contact with strangers. For them, reluctantly offering their hand (a “dead fish” handshake as their superiors called it) was already stepping out of their comfort zone.

2. Settling the bill: Clients often ask the best way to settle the bill or what to do in awkward situations when both parties insist on paying. In proper etiquette, the host is responsible for settling the bill. If you are worried, as the host, that your guest or client will insist on paying, leading to an awkward debate, be sure to pay the bill before the table is cleared.

As the meal is winding down, usually between the main and the dessert, one member of the hosting party should excuse themselves to subtly slip the server their credit card or cash. That way, when the bill comes to the table, all that is left is to sign or collect the change.

In some cultures, it is expected that several offers be made before a refusal is accepted. The guests or client may be fully aware that the host is expected to pay the bill but they feel it would be rude not to offer at least once.

3. Defining smart casual and business casual dress: There is no strict definition of smart casual or business casual. In some contexts a suit would be expected and in others tailored jeans would suffice.

For men, stick to long sleeved shirts and dress shoes, ties are often not necessary. For ladies, clothing should be at least knee length and shoulders covered. Accessorize conservatively with gold, silver, or pearls. Always air on the formal side, and when in doubt, it is best to check with your host.

We must appreciate that Hong Kong has a unique combination of business etiquette. Essentially we follow Western etiquette standards, but also incorporate Asian etiquette characteristics, such as attentive hosting, graciousness, and the concept of face. As a business culture, we are impatient, demanding, but also diligent and hard working.

Compared with international standards of etiquette and protocol, we are relatively casual. When building partnerships in Hong Kong, it is important to have an awareness of other cultures and a self-awareness of the first impression we put forward when approaching new situations.

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