How simple gestures can mean so much to a Chinese visitor

Living deeply in a Chinese community for two decades provided me ample opportunity to participate in various rites of passage of the Hong Kong, China culture I was embedded in.  This meant regular invitations to weddings, funerals, graduations and birthday celebrations.  It involved careful attention to detail regarding numbers, dates, colours and gestures and often included lucky red packets and gifts appropriate for the occasion.

Symbolic gestures are a significant way that meaning is conveyed in Chinese culture and it is worth paying attention to them. A simple gesture can convey the deepest meaning and perhaps fill that gap where language is inadequate.

Emphasis on explicit or indirect communication
Those with low context cultural values prefer explicit communication and the use of words to convey meaning.  This might be more of a familiar cultural value seen in the Australian context.

In high context cultures, such as the Confucian Asian cultural cluster where many Chinese people’s values are aligned, symbolic gestures play a vital role in conveying meaning.  This runs far deeper than simply hand gestures to indicate a greeting, perfection or approval. 

It’s not a matter of being right or wrong when it comes to one’s emphasis on words or gestures.  It’s just a preference.

When it comes to hands – have both at the ready
Respect is shown in such a variety of ways across cultures.  My children were always told to smile and look directly at people when talking to them, not to chat when a speaker is presenting and when in Hong Kong to make sure that they gave and received things with two hands as this was a sign of respect in that context.

The giving and receiving of business cards with two hands in the Chinese context is something we are often reminded of when preparing for interaction with our Chinese counterparts.  The approach goes further than a business card, as this two-handed gesture is a most respectful one.  It conveys the importance and value of the item being exchanged and the respect that comes with it.  

It could be a gift, a brochure, a receipt, a certificate, the item just purchased from your wonderful establishment or a credit card being used to pay for that item.  It might be using two hands when handing over documents related to the meal or accommodation just enjoyed when people with high context cultural values are involved.

Giving red envelope, with Good Luck character, a tradition during Chinese New Year celebration

And what do doors have to do with showing respect?
Accompanying your guests or clients to the door is a wonderful way of showing respect and indicating the importance you place on your Chinese guests’ visit.  You’re showing hospitality right to the completion of their experience with you. 

If you’re the manager escorting your guests to the entrance doorway, you’ll make a huge impression on these guests and they will remember this meaningful gesture and no doubt pass the word on.  The more senior the person who accompanies guests to the door, and the closest you escort them to their vehicle, the greater the honour and respect.

This can add yet another appealing and valued layer of meaning to the warm friendly welcoming experience provided by Australians.

Guest writer:Pamela Murphy is a CQ (Cultural Intelligence) Certified Advanced Professional