Cultural understanding

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 January, 2012, 12:00am


Cultural differences can be a major source of confusion and frustration for expatriates living in Hong Kong, or those who regularly travel to the mainland for business. Attending classes to learn more about Chinese culture can help alleviate the misunderstandings that occur or help establish important business relationships.

'For business people who travel to the mainland a lot, they could make a big deal due to their level of understanding of Chinese culture,' explains Zhang Yiping, education director at HK Mandarin ( 'They need to learn about what to say and not say, about being more patient, noticing the hints their Chinese partners give them, knowing what the physical gestures mean and how to follow up a developing business deal.'

Chinese people's sense of time, for example, is different to that of Westerners, Zhang says. While Westerners tend to work on precise timetables and have their five-day business trips planned out in advance, Chinese people usually have a more flexible approach. 'Everything can be changed at the last minute without notice in advance. Time is not money for Chinese,' Zhang explains.

HK Mandarin provides classes in Chinese culture and etiquette as part of a package that includes Putonghua classes. Packages are designed to suit travellers or business executives. Beginner-level packages run for 40 hours and cost HK$350 to HK$400 per hour.

Topics include personal etiquette, Chinese meals and celebrations, such as table manners, gift giving and sitting in the right place, business etiquette including mianzi (giving face), guanxi (developing relationships), Chinese ways of negotiating and how to be a host for Chinese clients.

'A Brazilian student of mine was at a dinner party in Beijing and proposed a toast to his host by saying 'chin chin'. In Putonghua this sounds like 'kiss kiss', which means 'Let's kiss each other',' Zhang says. 'Everyone standing around the table was very confused.'

For people who would like to learn more about the culture of Hong Kong, Yifan Mandarin provides one-off classes for the English Speaking Members Department of the YWCA (

The classes focus on Lunar New Year celebrations, Chinese culture and etiquette, traditions in Chinese weddings and funerals, and an introduction to Hong Kong's local culture and heritage.

'Participants always tell me after the sessions that they understand a lot of things that had puzzled them before and they now realise there can be so much misunderstanding between their behaviour and that of their Chinese friends or colleagues,' says Kate Zhou, director of Yifan Mandarin (

Zhou says many expatriates often feel locals are blunt or rude by asking questions or making comments that are too personal in nature. An Englishwoman once described in class how she changed supermarkets because a cashier had become too familiar and started making comments to her such as, 'Oh, you look tired today', and 'Oh, you had a new hair cut, but I prefer your old one'.