For the uninitiated, doing business in a foreign country can be nerve wracking as you must wonder whether every move you make and every word you speak is breaking a local custom. The questions you ask yourself are endless. Should I use a firm handshake? If I refuse the tea they're offering me, will they not consider doing business with me?
I've asked myself these questions and hundreds of others over the past several months since I moved my wife and two young children from Salt Lake City, Utah to Hong Kong where I'm opening an Asia office for my online marketing firm, MWI.
Below are the most important lessons I've learned about business culture in this amazing city. While I do business in Hong Kong, these business etiquette rules are also relevant when doing business in mainland China.
1. Only giving business cards to business associates.
In the U.S., we give business cards to business associates and don't think much about the exchange. Often, as a meeting starts around a conference table, business cards glide across the table from every direction like some combination of poker and air hockey. Upon being introduced to a new business acquaintance, one might casually pull out a business card and hand it over, one-handed.
This is not how business cards are exchanged in Hong Kong.
When introduced to someone new, the first thing everyone does after shaking hands is reach into a jacket pocket or purse (never a pants pocket) to retrieve a business card holder full of new, clean cards. A card is presented with both hands, thumbs and index fingers holding the top corners, with the card facing the recipient so he or she can read it. One receives a card with both hands, gripping the bottom corners with thumbs and index fingers, studying the card carefully. Rather than tucking the card quickly into a suit pocket (again, never a pants pocket), one often continues to hold it for several minutes.
2. Thinking that networking is a strange thing.
Networking is almost a bad word in the U.S. It conjures up thoughts of being pestered by annoying salesmen, and of peddling services in which you have no interest. In Hong Kong, everyone networks all the time. Everyone wants to know what you are doing. You can't get away with being a wallflower because people will constantly approach you and ask you about your work. And they expect the same of you. This greatly facilitates getting business done as entrepreneurs here are not only keen to meet you, but also want to find ways to collaborate and do business together.
3. Refusing to drink alcohol with ease and frequency.
Having wine and beer around is the norm at business events, so it can get awkward if you don't drink. If this is the case, you can politely decline or take very small sips during your business meeting.
4. Not letting the coffee and tea flow.
Refusing to drink coffee or tea can be awkward in a city where tea is an ancient tradition and many business meetings are conducted in cafes.
Since tea is the customary beverage in all occasions, your cup will always be filled with tea. If you don't want to drink any, just simply leave it filled.
5. Not being extra insistent if you want to pay the bill.
If you want to pick up the tab at a restaurant or give a gift, you must be insistent. "When giving a gift, offering a favor, or settling the bill, the recipient may refuse several times before finally accepting," Kristine Stewart of Society West - The Hong Kong Institute of Etiquette, told PolicyMic.
6. Accepting the first "no, thank you" literally.
"Don't take 'no' for an answer," said Stewart. "Otherwise you might end up offending the person you are trying to please. Similar situations have landed a few of my clients in hot water."
In short, if someone you're doing business with refuses food, drink or a gift, offer it again. Everyone is supposed to refuse something offered to them at least once.
7. Dressing casually to be hipster cool.
There is no casual Friday in Hong Kong, and tech startup attire is only welcome if you work for a tech startup. If you wear anything but a smart, custom-tailored suit, you're probably too casual. It's Hugo Boss rather than Zumiez. And who can blame Hong Kongers when a nice, custom tailored suit runs about $250? For women, black is in, at least in business environments. Skirts that end above the knee are rarely seen.