Part IV: Myanmar and Laos
The majority of developing nations in the Southeast Asia region are members of Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that are currently pushing their economic growth to be able to compete in the global economic world. Most of the developed countries worldwide are keen to do business in the Southeast Asia region because it presents various business opportunities to have high returns for their investment. Thus, foreign business investors need to understand ethnic cultures and how they do business in each country before starting a business in the region.
In the previous part, we already talked about how business is influenced by culture and ethnic groups in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, The Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In this article, we are going to discuss deeper how culture influences business ethics in Myanmar and Laos.
Myanmar: Bama-hsan-jin, Stoicism, and Face
The republic of the Union of Myanmar is one of the largest countries in Southeast Asia that has a rich history and cultural tradition. The majority of the people are Bamar Buddhist, however, there is a cultural variety especially in the Burmese migrant populations across the globe.
The majority of the Burmese population belongs to the Bamar ethnic group (also known as Burman or Myanmar people). The country hashas identified 110 distinct ethnolinguistic groups and three major language families; Tibeto-Burman, Sino-Tibetan, and Tai. The official national language is Burmese, which belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family. The different ethnicities are generally geographically distinguished. For example, the Bamar typically live in the upper and central plains. The other seven largest ethnic minorities are mostly located in the mountainous regions. These groups are the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan.
The Burmese are typically gentle, considerate, and patient people. They appear to have a lot of gratitude for their situation, as well as hope for the future. This aspect of the Burmese character is particularly commendable when considering that the country continues to endure one of the world’s longest-running civil war conflicts, that is Karen conflict. The Karen conflict is an armed conflict between Karen Nationalists and Myanmar, for the independence of the Karen ethnic that lasted for 70 years.
Bama-hsan-jin is the standard of behavior and national identity of Myanmar that has become deeply associated with the traditions of the Bamar ethnic majority and influenced by teachings of the Buddhist religion. This concept describes cultural principles on knowledge of the Burmese language and Theravada Buddhism.
As such, generalizations describing this dominant culture may not be relevant to many people that belong to minority ethnicities and religions and speak minority languages. Some Burmeseness values are visible mostly in the country are the respect of elderly, dress modestly, and act with discretion towards the opposite gender. Indirect behavior is also characteristic of the Burmese character.
The Burmese are generally very patient and stoic in difficult circumstances. It is common for people to restrain themselves from reacting to problems, saying “Shi-par-say-taw” (‘Let it be’). This relaxed attitude is somewhat attributed to the spiritual culture of the country. Indeed, the teachings of Theravada Buddhism encourage people to be tolerant.
This relaxed and patient attitude has also impacted the approach to time in Myanmar. People are not generally in a hurry and tend to carry out their business at a more leisurely pace. With such freedom of time, the Burmese often stop to help or put more time and effort into interactions. However, it also means that foreigners may be kept waiting longer than expected. Try to be tolerant in this regard. ‘Thee Khan’ (patience) is a core value in Myanmar and people generally do not like it when they’re put in a pressurized situation.
The face is the common culture in most Asian countries, and the Burmese also have this culture. Face indicates a person’s reputation, dignity, and honor. By complimenting people, showing them respect, or doing something to increase their self-esteem, you give them face. The Burmese generally communicate quite indirectly and maintain a modest demeanor to protect their self-worth and peer perception. For example, people avoid excessive displays of negative emotions or public outbursts.
One of the biggest ways to lose face in Myanmar is to be contradicted, criticized, or disagreed with by a junior. Such an action shows a lack of respect, which is both embarrassing for the person being disrespected and uncouth of the speaker.
Work Ethics and Business Culture
The traditional greeting in Myanmar is a bow and placing both hands on your stomach. To greet monks, place your hands together in a prayer position, hold them at face level, and bow deeply. Often older people will simply nod in response and younger people will bow. To respect a monk, kneel on the ground and touch your palms and forehead to the floor three times.
Some Burmese, generally the non-Buddhist shake hands to greet. For that, they support their right elbow in their left hand whilst they shake another person’s hand. The formal greeting in Burmese is “Min-ga-la-ba shin” (for a woman) or “Min-ga-la-ba khin-bah” (for a man). These both mean ‘Hello’.
Myanmar’s business attire is conservative. Both men and women may pair Western clothes with traditional longyi (sarong). But foreigners do not need to do this. One important note to all this is for women, who should not dress in revealing clothing in this fairly conservative culture. Skirts should reach the knees and shoulders should be covered in any business dealings.
Shoes are removed not only at home but also in the office and even in some stores. So shoes that do not require lacing are recommended.
The action of giving a gift is known as ‘gadaw’ to pay one’s respects to someone superior to them. People usually offer and receive gifts with both hands together. Gifts are not opened immediately after receiving them or it can be seen as a greedy act. It is not best to give people high-value gifts, or it will put people in an awkward position to receive them. Be aware that Myanmar has guidelines for giving gifts to reduce corruption.
Personal relationships play an important role in Myanmar. Burmese prefer to work with someone they know and trust that making a third-party introduction is a necessity. Building personal relationships is important, there should be no problem finding things to talk about. Negotiations are time consuming and requiring multiple meetings and exhausting attention to detail.
Myanmar culture has something of a middle ground approach to small talk, but also not diving straight into business talk. Burmese are often curious about foreigners’ impression about their country, culture, and food.
Burmese are indirect communicators, they often understated verbal communication in ambiguity. Therefore, attention is paid to the speaker’s posture, expression, gestures, or tone of voice to draw further meaning. They generally take an ambiguous way to make their point known in order not to offend the other person in the conversation. Upfront honesty can be deeply intimidating, people tend to be subtle and discreet about their opinions.
To be polite, Burmese often gives us the answer we want to hear instead of the honest one. Similarly, the Karen people may answer a question with ‘no’ to sound modest when they mean the affirmative. The best way of reaching an understanding is to ask open-ended questions. This allows them to reach their answer in their own time and give agreeable and accepting responses that do not directly disrupt the discussion. According to GlobalStats, Facebook is the largest platform for social media users in Myanmar.
Strategy and Consideration
The respectful and compliant character of the Burmese leads them to accept differences in power and status throughout society. It is considered inappropriate to challenge or argue with someone with a senior social status or the elderly. Respect for the social hierarchy of age is particularly strong and important. The Burmese are expected to defer to their elders at all times.
In Myanmar, they have several greetings to the eldery, the monks, and traditional one. It is important to pay attention to who you are talking to and follow the rules for different social status.
Knowing the Culture
Referring the people to their identity is crucial. It is important to understand that ‘Bamar’ (or ‘Burman’) and ‘Burmese’ are not the same. People from minority ethnic groups can be very offended if there is one term that implies only Bamar can be Burmese. Many of the minority ethnic prefer to be called as their own ethnic identity rather than be referred to as ‘Burmese’, e.g. Karen, Chin, Rohingya.
Generally Burmese are very patient and stoic in difficult circumstances. This behavior somehow impacted the approach to time in Myanmar. They tend to be more relaxed in time and have a leisure pace in business meetings. Moreover, paying attention to Thee Khan (patience) is crucial because it is the core value in Myanmar and people do not like to be put under pressure.
It is essential to consider people’s feelings in Myanmar. Often criticism is taken personally by heart, and the advice of an elderly family member or monk is usually preferred over that of a counselor. A lot of Myanmar people are quite conservative and often wear traditional dress (longyi). Foreigners should not have any trouble in this, but it is probably wise to keep your knees and shoulders covered. Equally, women are often advised to avoid physical contact with monks.
The Burmese are mindful of their actions whether it could offend, embarrass, or inconvenience people. This is related to the concept of ‘ah-nar-de’ (or anade) as the feeling of not having the heart to say or do something that might affect another person’s feelings. Pay attention to giving a gift or gadaw, gifts can take different forms, such as meals, accommodation, travel, club memberships, and even gold and silver. However, it is forbidden to accept any gift from a person or organization which has been offered on account of their official position.
It is also important to do small talk so that it can make the situation less awkward. Moreover, personal relationships play a great part in Myanmar and by doing small talk we can gain more trust from them.
Laos: Harmony and Contentment
Officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. The country is vastly diverse in terms of ethnic and linguistic groups with more than 100 known ethnic groups and a total of 86 spoken languages with Lao as the country’s official language. Most Lao people share common values, attitudes, and collective experiences due to the hardships they shared from the Indochina Wars.
Generally, the Lao population is categorized into three main ethnic groups divided by their geographic location, which are Lao Loum (lowlanders), Lao Theung (highlanders), and Lao sung (mountain people). There are also many ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese residing in Laos. Throughout the history of Laos ethnic diversity has caused conflict among the ethnic groups. The complicated relations remain an integral part of Laos national identity.
Two-thirds of the Lao population identify as Buddhist, accounting for 64.7% of the population and the second most identified affiliation in Laos is “none” or ones that are not affiliated with any religion, accounting for 31.4% of the population (2015, est). Buddhism remains a dominant cultural force in which public signs of reverence for Buddhism are evident throughout the country and culture. Nonetheless, religions in Laos tend not to be exclusive and are both the syncretic practice of and a general tolerance for various religious customs and traditions (Britannica, 2021).
Lao people place a high value on harmony and unity with others to secure a network with their relatives and community. Thus, conservative conduct is the norm as the people wish to maintain harmony with each other. To preserve peace and minimize the risk of losing face, Lao people are often deliberate and contemplative in how they present themselves.
For instance, Lao tends to avoid the display of negative emotions such as selfishness or anger and maintain a calm disposition. Moreover, a high value is placed on the avoidance of conflict and actions likely to cause emotional discomfort. Different from Myanmar, which has different traditional greetings to the monks and older people, in Laos greeting of superiors is done by clasping one’s hands in a prayerful motion combined with a slight bow called the “nop”. Touching during conversation is also limited to non-existent especially with the opposite sex.
In a workplace environment, rarely, anyone would directly address mistakes or apologize for them. Pointing out to an error, whether our own or a coworker causes a loss of face. This concept is similar to self-respect and for Lao people losing face is humiliating. Thus it is common for them to cover up errors to save face.
Lao people have a strong concept of muan or “happy contentment” which means actions are not to be taken too quickly or too seriously. The Lao expression of “bo penh ngan” that translates to ‘nevermind’ or ‘no problem’ reflects the tendency towards acceptance and contentment of Laos people.
Many Lao people think that life should be enjoyed at the moment and problems should not be taken seriously so that it does not disrupt the enjoyment of life. They are also concerned with making sure everything has some sense of ‘fun’ as they inject playfulness and fun into mundane activities. For example, Lao always keeps their smile during greetings and it is common to see them laughing and smiling when interacting with friends, relatives, and the community.
Similar to the application of stoicism in Myanmar business culture, Laos’ people contentment in the business context is that they also carry their business at a leisurely pace. It is not expected in Laos that they will do their work right away as time is viewed differently than in Western countries. Instead of rushing to cram life into every moment, Lao are more patient and accepts things will happen eventually. Thus, in the workplace, this could mean that even urgent things could rarely be done right away.
Work Ethics and Business Culture
View of Time
Time is viewed as flexible in Laos as it is reflected in their expression of “koi koi pai” or slowly slowly. Lao people are not so punctual and often arrive late to events, and invitations are often given a day before the event. However, punctuality is valued in Lao business culture. Thus, it is expected to arrive on time to respect the Lao counterpart.
Moreover, official business hours are from 08:00 to 12:00 with a one-hour lunch break and continue from 13:00 to 16:00 from Monday to Friday. It is also important to build relationships during lunchtime as it is an event where coworkers chat, gossip, and relax.
In Laos nowadays, handshaking in the conduct of business is increasingly common and it is considered acceptable for foreigners to shake hands with people regardless of gender. However, it is preferable to use Laos traditional greeting, which is the nop followed by ‘saibaideebor’ that means ‘how are you?’ or ‘are you well’. The receiver will usually reply with ‘sabaidee’ or ‘it goes well’.
In Lao naming conventions, the first name is followed by the surname, such as Soukbandith Bounsouan. Lao people are called by their first names, with their title Mr, Ms, or Madame. To address someone of high status, one adds ‘thaan’ to the person’s name, for instance “‘Thaan’ Soukbandith”. Moreover, in order to give higher honors or in times of special occasion, the first name should be followed by their last name or their family name such as “Thaan Soukbandith Bounsouan”.
Similar to Myanmar, Lao people often dress less formally but accept the conventional western choice. Men should usually wear shirts and pants for normal business occasions and wear lightweight suits with ties for special occasions. On the other hand, women usually wear blouses with long sleeves or long skirts. While in Myanmar, people usually combine Western clothes with a traditional sarong. Wearing singlets with thin straps that expose shoulders, skirts or shorts above the knee, or wearing pants are considered lacking modesty for Lao women.
While in Myanmar one should be careful on one’s footwear of choice, in Laos another important thing to note is perfumes as Lao people are quite sensitive to odor. Soft perfumes are preferred for ones that have strong body odor. Moreover, neat and clean clothes help in giving a good impression to Lao people.
In Laos, it is not required to give a gift when meeting a business partner. Nonetheless, giving gifts shows consideration to other people and is good to maintain relationships. Similarly in Myanmar, gifts are given in the order of people’s importance in their position in Laos. Thanking the giver profusely for their gift is considered to be uncomfortable for the receiver and giver in Laos.
Unlike Myanmar, certain things need to be considered in gift-giving in Laos. Green and red wrapping paper are most suitable while using the color white as a wrapping paper is considered unlucky. Gifts can be anything, but gifts associated with one’s feet such as socks and shoes are not suitable as it is the least sacred part of the body according to Lao culture. A polite way to pass a gift with the right hand while the left hand supports the right elbow. Wrapped gifts are opened when the person is alone usually at their homes.
Different from Myanmar where meeting is usually to build relationships and is more casual, in Laos meeting is generally made for opportunities for social occasions. In a business meeting, deference and respect are usually shown to the person in the highest rank or the most senior person in an organization and they should be the first one to enter the room and speak to other people.
Business meetings tend not to strictly follow the schedule or agenda. Different from Myanmar that will conduct more meetings, in Laos the topics of discussions will continue regardless of the time limit until all attendees feel that everything of interest has been satisfactorily discussed. To indicate the end of a meeting they usually ask attendees for more tea, beginning to summarize things up, thanking attendees for coming, and leading attendees to the door.
Like other Southeast Asian countries, saving face is also important in Lao communication. Lao people avoid having any conflict in relationships as it is an important thing. Lao people prefer non-confrontational ways of communicating for disagreement rather than confront a person with an issue or disagreement, which is similar to Burmese indirect communication style.
Similar with Myanmar’s ambiguity in making their point, Lao people use non confrontational tactics as the norm. Thus “yes” does not always mean ‘yes’ in Laos and is used to indicate that the message has been heard and understood. On the other hand, the word ‘no’ is rarely used to avoid any form of conflict. Moreover, Lao people often apologize when something happens whether they did not do anything wrong, but because an unfortunate incident has happened. They are often softly spoken and reserved with minimal physical contact and respect for personal space.
Moreover, sending messages through email, signing contracts electronically and attending virtual meetings are practically non-existent in Laos. Besides, printed memos, forms, and documents should be printed both in Lao and foreign languages so that Lao counterparts can understand the content of the document.
Strategy and Consideration
It is important to take careful conduct in displaying emotions and how they may be received when interacting with Lao business counterparts. Lao people behave in a way that maintains their reputation and their business reputation.
Avoid direct refusals and the use of sensitive or difficult conversation topics. Nonetheless, interacting as one typically would in the English speaking with a calm, patient, and respectable manner is acceptable and is a good communication approach.
Moreover, paying attention to dressing style is crucial to be respectful of the culture. It is advisable for men to use a shirt, lightweight suit, and tie. For women, conservative dress is always a safe option, try to use a long skirt, blouse, long sleeve top, and avoid the use of pants and showing the skin.
Knowing the culture
It is highly appreciated by foreign counterparts for any sincere efforts to learn and speak their language. Basic greetings or several key phrases will act as a good ice breaker and show keenness to understand Lao culture, regardless of whether terms are mispronounced. If business cards are handed out, try to give ones that are written both in Lao and English.
In Lao culture, there are important things to note for giving gifts. We should give the gift in the order of people’s importance in their position. Do not give gifts associated with feet and do not wrap your gifts with white color wrapping paper. Pass the gift with your right hand while the left hand supports it and do not be offended when gifts are not replied to with profound thanks.
Lao people are more content in their life and are more patient and accepting things will happen eventually. Expect your Lao counterpart to do things slower and not do things right away. Thus, it is advisable to schedule meetings and deadlines a week ahead and consistently setting clear and measurable goals.
The decision-making process can take a considerable length of time in Laos. Information is usually relayed up and down the organization’s hierarchy. Thus, it is crucial to determine the hierarchy and seniority of the organization, as well as who is responsible for decision making.
Take a careful look at the company’s organizational chart that is usually displayed in the lobby of every workplace in Laos. It is also important to address the most senior person first before directly speaking with others.
Moreover, traditional greetings are done differently according to the level of seniority. The depth of the bow and the level of the hands represents the level of respect given to someone. It is advisable to address your Lao counterpart with hands positioned at the level of the mouth and hands should never be above the level of the nose when greeting. Younger people or of lower social status are expected to bow first.
Businesses in Laos are often based on personal relations developed within social circles. Thus, having a reliable and well-connected local representative is important for foreign ventures.
Try to start the conversation by asking Lao counterparts about their traditions, culture, and family to better understand them while effectively building the relationship. To build mutual trust and understanding between partners, social activities such as eating dinner or playing golf is commonly practiced.
One of the most vital elements in achieving success in any global business venture is cultural awareness, it is crucial to understand the target country’s business culture, work ethics, customs, communication styles, and formalities. With various ethnic backgrounds and diverse religions, it is important to get a grasp on how these affect people in doing their business.
As Myanmar and Laos cultures are influenced by Buddhism and the geographical factor, most likely they have similar traits in their culture. For example, how the Buddhist influenced both people in these countries in stoic behavior and contentment. Both countries have similarities in saving face, social hierarchy, and using indirect communication style.
Moreover, this article provides general information about each country, but it is important to know your business partner individually. By doing so, you would not get stereotyped or be biased.
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*This article is written by Anneke Julianita and Gianina Amira Zahra