Lao Culture and Business Etiquette
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Published: Thu, 16 Aug 2018
Lao is located in South-East Asia. It is one of the long history countries with well-established traditional in Asia. Laos has its own culture, traditional which is quite similar to other countries in South-East Asia However, Laos’s culture is strongly influenced by religious, Buddhism believe and also nearby countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma. For people who come from different country, they always have a big crash in culture shock. They must learn and get used to Lao culture which is very important for their new living place. Normally, when they have conversation with Laos, they should use their eyes and common sense to navigate and learn Lao’s culture. Here is some information guideline for foreigner should know:
Laos has its own traditional greeting called ‘Nob’ where palms are placed together and held in front of the chest or face. The person who is in the lower level/position in social or younger should give a bow or greeting first, then but the oder or l/higher level/position in social person will respond greeting back. There are many levels for showing respect to the person in greeting with ‘Nob’. The higher of the hands holding level and the lower of the bow means the higher the degree of respect. During ‘Nob’, one should smile and say ‘hello’ together with.
“Sa Bai Dee” is a word used for the same purpose as ‘Hello’. Its general meaning is ‘How are you’ or ‘I’m fine’. It is also used for meaning ‘I am doing well’. It is common in Laos to ask others if they already had dining or meal after greeting. When persons ask this question, they do not normally purpose for the answer but they show their care to those persons they ask.
The Lao are truly happy being Laos. The Lao accept for who are they, what they are doing and proud in their long histories and well-established traditions. They appreciate when foreigner shows interest in their culture.
Laos is a feeling sensitive culture. They care for other people feeling. Lao have many words to describe about their feeling and to express how they think. Lao’s words that are often used in everyday life are ‘Bo Penh Nyang’ and ‘Tham Ma Dha’. These two words have various meaning according to the context. However, all meanings are related and influence by a Buddhist perspective.
Bo Penh Nyang directly means ‘No problem’. It also has other meanings as ‘never mind’ or ‘are you all right?’ In some case, Bo Penh Nyang used with someone did something wrong to express that the action is forgiven. Tham Ma Dha is the word from Buddhist thinking, means ‘everything goes on it way’. In everyday life situation, it means ‘average’, ‘the norm’ or ‘everything process as usual.’
Similar to other countries in South-East Asia, Lao culture is influenced by Buddhism believe.. Buddhism deeply binds with Laos’s everyday life and their ways of thinking also their traditional. With Buddhist teaching about the ways of things that things are as they are and as they should be, Lao easily accept the changing. Moreover, Buddhism religious always teach people to be peace and respect to each other. This builds Laos society to be a peaceful living. Lao people also highly give respect to monk and religious related things. Religious and Temple is the center of Lao mental conduct.
In Laos, as in most Buddhist cultures, head is considered the most precious/highest part of the body. In the other hand, the feet are the least sacred/lowest part of the body. There are many manners and aspects that are related to body conduct. It is necessary to remember this conduct whenever in Laos. Laos do not play other head as it is consider as the high part of body.
In big city and urban area, Laos dress the modern cloths in the same way as the western do. However, short and revealing clothes are generally not acceptable in Lao culture. In temple, everybody must wear polite cloth such as women must wear long pant or dress to cover their knee with long sleeve and must not show their chest.
Losing face is a very sensitive situation for Laos. Losing face in public is a humiliated thing. Lao are afraid of being insulted. before talking about something or doing some action, those stuff should be reconsidered if it will cause losing face to anybody. Any form of confrontation for winner and loser which might lead to losing face must be avoided.
DO say ‘Sa Bai Dee’ as a greeting word in Lao with Lao’s traditional greeting. If you don’t know how to greet in Lao’s tradition way, it is better to bow a little bit and say hello with a smile.
Do smile a lot, Lao people love peaceful atmosphere. They always smile to each other.
Do avoid showing affection in public. Lao are quite conservative. Greeting are any action with affection of person is not widely accepts even within the same gender.
DO dress with neat and clean business suites for meetings. Lao are easily getting impressed by outside cloths.
Do wear polite dress when visiting government, office and temple. Appropriate dress and behavior when entering places are essential. shorts or sleeveless shirts or flip flop is impolite dress.
DO take off your shoes when invited into your Lao business colleague’s home. Lao people try to keep their places clean. Taking hat and shoes off also are showing respect to the places. Lao appreciate and expect foreigner to do the same.
Do crouch your back down when walking pass someone sitting, especially the elder. Lao highly give respect to elder. Also, as crouching back, body of walking person is consider as not higher than sitting person.
Do show respect to Buddhism. Foreigner should show respect and be careful on their action in the temples area. Do speak respectful about the religion. One important thing about Buddhism is women should not touch Monks.
Do not touch anyone on the head. As head is the most sacred part of the Lao’s body, touching head is considered as very impolite behavior
Don’t put your feet on table or chair and shouldn’t sit with crossed-leg or point your feet to anyone. The same thing as the previous one, Lao believe that Head is high and Feet are Low.
Don’t take any people photo without permission. You must ask them first to permission if they are ok or not.
Do not shout or raise your voice or lose temper in public. Lao people speak softly and avoid confrontation. Speaking or shouting in loud voice may frighten them. It is also considered as uneducated or uncivilized person. People who lose their temper in public might be looked down on from other people.
Do not involving with illegal stuff and sex tourism. The use of drugs is illegal in Laos.. The selling of wildlife and wildlife products should be avoided. Trading antique Buddha, sacred items and other old artifacts are prohibited. They are not allowed to be taken out of Laos. You might have problem when leaving Laos. Sex tourism is also illegal in Lao
Business culture in Laos is different from westerner’s business culture. In order to understand the difference of business culture between different cultures, the person has to have real experience and navigate deeply in the culture. The comparison of the value emphases that can be found for each culture, Laos and Western, are listed in the following Table.1. This table is derived from real experience of western businessman in Lao with his point of view and his own navigating. It can be used as a guideline for more understanding Lao’s business value.
Businesses are often based on personal relations developed within social circles. In Laos business culture, work and social relationship are getting along and depend on each other. Since the emphasis placed on personal relationships is high, having a reliable and well-connected local agent or representative is crucial to the success of a foreign venture. Lao are seeking for trusted and credible relationships. Relationships progress slowly in Laos with the step-by-step approach. Asking Laos partner about their family, traditions, culture help foreigner understand their Laos partner better and also effective in building the relationship.
View of Time
Lao people are not so punctual. They are often late for the appointment. Normally, they do not have exact plan and time table for their schedule. Foreigner should learn how the locals plan their time and keep their sense of time flexible. However, punctuality from foreign partner is appreciated
Official office hours are from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. from Monday to Friday. In factories and private companies work hours can be extended according to the law’s allowance.
In business, nowadays, handshaking is becoming increasingly common during the conduct of business but only for people with same gender. Men and women should avoid public displays of affection. However, Laos traditional greeting is preferred.
Lao people should be called by their first names, with their title ‘Mr//Ms//Madame’ or ‘Than’ (in Lao) before the name. In the special occasion or to give higher honors, last name or their family name should be followed after their first name.
In Laos business, dress code for business is an importance. Men should wear western clothing such as shirt and trousers for normal business occasion. For special occasion, lightweight suits with tie should be worn. Women usually wear long skirts or blouse with long sleeve covering the shoulders and upper legs. Women’s business cloth should avoid showing skin. Another important thing for dressing is perfumes. Laos are quite sensitive to odour. Westerners who have strong body odour should wear soft perfumes. Clean and neat cloths help in giving impression to Laos.
Official language is Lao. English and Fresh are also commonly used in Business. However, French is more widely used, spoken and understood than English.
When doing business in Lao, carry lots of business cards. Business card exchange is common in Lao’s business practice. Business cards should be translated into Lao and printed out. A common used one is to have English version on one side and Lao version on the other side.
In business card exchanging, cards should be given and received using both hands. Giving business card with this posture shows honor and humble to the person whom is dealed with. Exchanging business card with one hand also acceptable, but only exchanging with right hand where left hand lightly wrap around wrist and lower arm. The card should never be immediately kept into the pocket or placed somewhere. The detail in card for person name and position should be studied after receiving another person’s card. Also, the card should not be written anything down. At meetings, other people’s business cards should be arranged on the table according to the sitting position. This helps tracking of people names. It also is a sign of respect and interested in for the person. Another important thing is, playing or writing anything down in other people business card is disrespectful action. Business card should be treated with respect in same degree of respect as one would show the person him or herself.
It is not required to give the gift when meeting business partner but giving gift shows consideration to other people and good relationship. Gift can be anything and do not have to be expensive things. Gift can be offered to anyone in the meeting but the most importance is giving one for the host or person in the highest rank. Gifts are given in the order of people’s importance or their position. Wrapped gifts will be opened only when the person is alone. Shoes and socks are not suitable to be gifts in Laos as it is related to foot which is the least sacred part of the body. Green and red are the most suitable colors for wrapping paper in Laos. White wrapping paper, which is considered as unlucky and miserable color, should be avoided.
‘Negotiations process in the Lao is quite slow. It is also highly unwell-organized. Lao contracts are normally written in short with simple language. The Lao’s contract focuses on principles while western contract is obtuse and legalistic. Relationship is more important than the terms and conditions in the contract. They view the contract as the starting point of relationship but are able to change later. The agreement may become meaningless if the circumstances change. Good relationship with Lao partners is a big help in negotiation. Breaking of negotiation should be done very carefully as it might shut the door on future cooperation. Seeking for legal counsel might lead to failed relationship i
Meeting in Lao is not well-conducted. In many case, meeting for Lao people is made for purpose of opportunities for social occasion.
The highest ranking person of the group should be the first one who go into the room and speak to other people. There is normally business card exchange before the meeting start. Meetings always begin with informal talk with serving coffee or tea. The served tea or coffee should be drink or sip before main topic start as a polite and appreciate behavior. A several discussion are normally takes place before launch into the the main topic of the meeting. The host will be the person who starts talking into the main topic.
There are several signals from host that indicate the end of meeting. The signals include asking guest if they would like more tea, beginning to summarize things up, thank you for coming, and leading guest to the door.
If Lao has invited someone to a dinner it means that they interest to build deeper relationship. It is important to return the favor as it is a sign of interested in having relationship with them. Whenever accept dining invitation, it is important to be a host for next meal.
If the meal take place at Lao’s house, remember to take shoes off before enter the house. Guest should not take seat until host invites to sit. For dining at restaurant, do not ask to share the bill if have dining at restaurant if they propose to pay for you. Instead, accept the invitation and then host the next meal.
Lao has indirect communication style. Rather than confront a person with an issue or disagreement, Lao prefer a non-confrontational ways of communicating for disagreement. As Laos are collectivism, relationship between people is important thing. They avoid having any conflict in relationships especially when in public. People are more likely to avoid anger, confrontation or verbal criticisms which can lead to loss of face. Instead of direct confrontation, they try to find another way to solve the conflict. Body languages are quite preserved in Lao. They try to avoid eye contact. They also have few body language gestures.
For documentation, written documents should be in both Lao and the foreign language so Lao people could understand more correctly about the content of the document. One more important thing is document written with red ink might get negative feedback from Lao.
One more thing that foreigner should know is thing are not as the way they seem to be. For example, Foreigner should never ever take yes of Lao as an answer. Lao normally say “yes” to indicate that the message has been heard and understood. “Yes” means ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ or ‘no’. “Maybe” means ‘yes,’ ‘no’, or just ‘maybe’. And there is really no ‘no’ as they try to avoid any form of conflict. Another example is bad news from Lao is often slowly introduced. The main topic is normally come after the word ‘and’ which generally is when the most important content is revealed. Another important thing in communication is saying Apologize. Lao normally apologize when something happen, even if they did not do anything worng. But they apologize because an unfortunate incident has occurred.
It is importance to remember how to show respect. When in Laos, try and do as the Laos. Do and remember about body conduct, dress, and public affection and religious manner.
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