Hong Kong

In 1997, this former British colony once again officially became part of China after 150 years of British rule. Although the population of Hong Kong is mostly Chinese, it is unique in that English remains an official language, and many of the customs and business practices reflect a blend of British and Chinese values.

Traditional Hong Kong Chinese Worldview

Group Orientation
Identity defined by group, family; group welfare supersedes individual concerns

Harmony and face saving are very important

Relationship Focused
Personal interaction highly valued—Guanxi

Patterns of rank and status are observed

Tolerance for Ambiguity
Comfortable with ambiguous situations; risk-taking is encouraged

Loose application of rules; requires understanding of context and relationship

Fluid Time
Scheduling, negotiating and deadlines are more flexible

Cultural Notes:

  • Hong Kong was formerly a British colony for over 150 years, so some British customs and heritage are present and English is an official language.
  • Britain ceded control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and it is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) under China’s policy, “one country, two systems.”
  • The population of Hong Kong is 95%  ethnic Chinese, mostly Cantonese, which is the second official language, although Mandarin is increasing in usage.
  • Traditional mainland Chinese customs, festivals and rituals are still very much the cultural norm, along with Confucian ideals.
  • Patterns of rank and status are observed.

Cultural Assumptions

  • Observance of rites and social rituals (Li)
  • Saving face & avoiding shame (Mianzi)
  • Fostering strong networks of personal relationships (Guanxi)
  • Emotional and behavioral reserve valued
  • Family stability, material success
  • Honoring protocol and status
  • Group stability
  • Giving favors and building mutual obligation
  • Sense of cultural superiority
  • Self-cultivation, education
  • Perseverance

Traditional Hong Kong Communication Style

Imply/suggest what is meant.  You need to read between the lines

High Context
Background information assumed depending on nature of relationship

Sensitivity to hierarchy/face saving very important

Emotional displays avoided


Guidelines for Communicating with Hong Kong Chinese

  • Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings.
  • Learn to read paralinguistic cues, such as facial expressions, body movements, gestures and pauses.
  • Develop a belief that words can be inadequate and insufficient.
  • Understand that Chinese selves are often embedded in plural pronouns, and learn to differentiate personal opinions from those of the group.
  • Be aware that impersonal language can be used with outsiders and that insiders and outsiders are treated differently.
  • Accept that Chinese value indirect talk and that requests are often implied.
  • Recognize that definitive responses are rarely given in Chinese culture and that the word “yes” may have multiple meanings.
  • Understand that modesty is a Chinese virtue and that understating and discrediting oneself is expected.
  • Be aware that personal questions are asked frequently and that guanxi talk is a sign of care and interest.
  • Accept that Chinese tend to keep opinions to themselves and are uncomfortable in engaging in social talk with strangers.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Polite nods are common when greeting someone as well as handshakes.  Due to restrained style, gestures are not used as often and can be considered distracting.  Pointing is done with the entire hand, rather than one finger, as in the United States.

Prefer not to be touched, especially if there has been no relationship built. With similar genders and close friendships there can be some touching.

Minimal physical contact unless in public spaces.  Prefer formal recognition of space, particularly with the elderly, who are treated with reverence.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Inextricably linked with mianzi or face; problems must be approached delicately, without causing embarrassment.
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Treating people with ren; taking good care of subordinates, benevolent authority
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Informal, subjective; personal relationship (loyalty) supersedes performance
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS Focus on group harmony & shared accomplishment; qualitative and subjective; includes social & economic concerns
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Proceed slowly, cautiously, patiently, without emotional display, seeking compromise. There is no formal end to negotiations and points can come up much later when they are unexpected
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Protracted group process of leader-mediated compromise
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Meetings are formal; behavior is reserved; emotional display is proscribed; attention to hierarchy in the room
Centralized management; upward dependence; little tolerance for individual initiative
HIRING Hiring and firing based on perceived loyalty. Does not necessarily involve performance considerations
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Development of strong personal relationships with customers is crucial. This can take a considerable amount of time