Chinese greeting customs: shake hands, please, but no kissing

When it comes to meeting and encountering others, what might be acceptable in the West might be taboo in Hong Kong and China and vice versa

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 November, 2017, 8:44am

The way Hongkongers behave in public is no doubt influenced by centuries of traditional Confucian culture, but 156 years of British colonial rule have had an undeniable effect on local customs, sometimes leading to stark behavioural differences with mainland Chinese. Here, City Weekend has come up with a handy guide to some distinctively Hong Kong and Chinese mannerisms to ensure that you don’t mistakenly offend any locals you meet.

Limp handshakes

Similar to the West, handshakes are the most typically accepted greeting in Hong Kong, but you should never go for a Donald Trump-style arm grab lasting for several seconds. Hongkongers’ handshakes tend to be weaker than those of their Western counterparts and are normally accompanied with a lowering of the gaze in respect, but this may translate to lack of confidence or simply rudeness in the West. So the next time you greet a Hongkonger, particularly someone in a position of authority, don’t eyeball them throughout and don’t touch any other part of their body to show how friendly you are – it may come across as creepy or overly intimate.

No bodily contact, please

Cheek kissing when greeting close friends, as is commonly practised in parts of Europe, is also a big no-no. This is one area where Hong Kong takes after the mainland and other East Asian countries, since most people tend to shun public displays of affection such as holding hands. Hugging, especially when first meeting someone, is also rare for Hongkongers who may not be as touchy-feely with people they don’t know well. But in big cities on the mainland, the sight of young Chinese couples indulging in light PDA (public display of affection) is becoming more common.

Clasped hands

Although this traditional Chinese greeting is fairly uncommon these days, some Hongkongers may opt to use it instead of a handshake if they are ill and wish to avoid passing on germs.

A gift for all occasions

Hongkongers and Chinese people in general are known for their frequent gift-giving, from formal events such as weddings and business meetings to simply visiting a friend’s house at the weekend. Fail-safe choices include high-quality fruit, flowers, imported whiskey or wine, and luxury chocolates. Gift-giving trends change year by year, so take note of what others do – that giant box of cut-price Ferrero Rocher you gave your neighbour a few years ago probably won’t cut it for your boss now.

No holding doors in public for strangers

In somewhere like Britain, for example, letting a door slam in somebody else’s face is considered the height of rudeness. But in Hong Kong, holding doors open for strangers is seen as unusual at best.

Spitting

Anti-spitting laws have been in place in Hong Kong since the early 20th century, partly due to the disgust of Westerners at the traditional Chinese habit which, by then, had been proved to be unhygienic and a major contributor to the spread of lethal diseases such as tuberculosis. In traditional Chinese culture, spitting is viewed as a normal and even healthy way of clearing the body of mucus, although mainland cities have started to ban it in public since the 2003 Sars epidemic. Even former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping kept a spittoon by his side during meetings with foreign politicians – most notably then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who was less than impressed with the habit, as one might imagine.

Table manners

Like the mainland Chinese, Hongkongers generally take lavish banquets very seriously as an opportunity to both strengthen relationships with people and show off their generosity. Hosts like to keep adding food to guests’ plates despite protestations that they are full, and it is considered rude to decline food or act too fussy over dietary requirements. But Westerners may be surprised to find that other behaviours such as loud eating noises, burping, picking at bones and clanging utensils are generally accepted no matter how posh the surroundings.

Tap the table for tea

One unusual Chinese custom that has survived from imperial times is tapping the dining table with two fingers to show thanks towards someone who has kindly refilled your teacup during a meal. It may look quite rude to Westerners (“Hurry up with pouring my tea!”) but is actually meant as a discreet gesture of appreciation, most often used during lengthy yum cha sessions at local restaurants.

Taboo conversation topics

It is best to steer clear of controversial topics that elicit strong opinions such as politics when first meeting a Hongkonger, as well as oversharing about your personal life. On the other hand, Hongkongers can be surprisingly blunt in conversation about what Westerners would consider very invasive personal details such as financial income and weight gain or loss. Some Hongkongers will even greet their friends with phrases like “You look tired!” or “You look fatter and healthier these days!” While these greetings are intended to show concern or even be complimentary, they can come across as insensitive.