Laos has its own traditional greeting called ‘Nob’. Where palms are placed together as if in prayer and held in front of the chest or face. The person who is socially inferior or younger should be the first to bow, but it is considered polite for the older/socially superior person to respond quickly. There are many levels for showing respect to the person in greeting with ‘Nob’. The higher the hands are held and the lower the bow, the greater the degree of respect. During ‘Nob’, one should smile and say ‘hello’ together.
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“Sa Bai Dee” is a word used as Hello. Its general meaning is ‘How are you’ and ‘I am doing good’ or ‘I’m fine’. It is common in Laos to ask, “Have you eaten yet?” after greeting. When person ask this question, he/she does not normally purpose for the answer but to show care. This tells the importance, not unlike many cultures, of offering and accepting hospitality whenever possible.
The Lao are truly happy being Lao. However, they might not notice themselves. According to the Buddhist Precept, ‘Things are as they are and should be’. The Lao accept who and what they are. And the Lao are proud in their long and well-established traditions. They like when foreigner shows interest in their culture.
Laos is a deeply sensitive culture. They care for other people feeling. Word expressions capture the essence of a culture. One should always bear this in mind before making a strong comment or taking direct action. Lao has a lot of expressions include the word ‘Chai’ or ‘heart’
Two frequently used Lao expressions are ‘Bo Penh Nyang’ and ‘Tham Ma Dha’. These two words have various meaning according to the context. However, all meanings derive from a Buddhist perspective of acceptance of the prevailing situation.
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 can use for express as ‘I forgive and forget your action.’; this is normally used when someone did something wrong.
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 ‘proceeding as usual.’
Similar to other countries in South-East Asia, Lao culture is influenced by Buddhist thinking. This translates to a very patient and accepting attitude. People want to move on to peace and prosperity rather than dwell on the past. Things are as they are and should be and change comes slowly.
In Laos, as in most Buddhist cultures, head is considered the most precious part of the body as it is the center of the spirit. In the same way, the feet are the least sacred 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.
In big city and urban area, Lao dress the modern cloths in the same way as the western do. However, short and revealing clothes are generally not acceptable in Lao culture.
To lose face, or to cause another to lose face, is serious. Losing face can make Lao people very sensitive. They are afraid of being insulted. Any form of confrontation for winner and loser must be avoided.
Do and Don’t
Do not offer a kiss in greeting!
The Laos word for hello is “Sa Bai Dee”,usually said with a smile. Hand shaking in public is not common. If you don’t know how to greet in Lao’s tradition way, it is better to bow a little bit and say hello. Touching or showing affection in public will embarrass Lao. Greeting with affection of people with same gender is not widely accepted.
Do avoid showing affection
Kissing and hugging and hand holding in public is impolite. Handholding in public should be avoided, even for foreigner couple. Men and woman should not touch or have public affection. Please be discrete and show respect to Lao culture.
Be clean and neat in appearance whenever possible.
Lao people appreciate clean and neatly dressed visitors. Do dress modestly when entering temples, museums, official buildings and government offices; no shorts or sleeveless shirts, tank tops or beach wear. Appropriate dress and behavior when entering places are essential. Lao people are also sensitive with odor. People who have strong body odor should wear perfume however, strong perfume is not appreciated.
Do take your hat and shoes off before you enter temple or Laos’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 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.
Do remember that feet is low
Do not point your feet towards people or Buddha images. Using your feet for anything other than walking or playing sport is generally considered rude. Sitting with legs crossed should be also avoided, otherwise, pointing feet at something or someone. When sitting in a temple, keep legs together and to the side in a mermaid position.
Do gently crouch down when passing someone who is seated
It is polite to gently crouches one’s back down when passing someone who is seated. Never, ever step over someone in your path.
Do not shout or raise your voice
Lao people speak softly and avoid confrontation. Speaking or shouting in loud voice may frighten them.
Don’t lose your temper in public.
Speaking loudly and angrily is often counterproductive. It also consider as uneducated or uncivilized person. People who lose their temper in public might be looked down on from other people.
Do ask for the permission first before you take a photo of someone
It is better to ask for permission, particularly in villages outside the cities where the people may have superstitions against being photographed.
Do not ‘Bathing’ nude or ‘Semi-nude’ in public.
A lot of travelers bath in the river and waterfall nude or wear bikini. Lao people do not appreciate that behavior as it is contrast to their culture and religious.
Do show respect to the temple, monk and religious related things.
Foreigner should show respect and dress neatly while in temples and when taking photos around the temple areas. There are many other sacred items and sites in Laos. do not touch these items or enter places without permission.
Do avoid involving with illegal stuff
The use of drugs is illegal in Laos. The government is serious about this. The illegal sale of wildlife and wildlife products should be avoided. Buying 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 illegal in Lao
Sex tourism is illegal in Lao and child-sex tourism is a serious crime. Moreover The Lao government prohibits any sexual contact or relationships between Lao nationals and foreigners, unless married under Lao law; penalties may involve heavy fines or imprisonment
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.
Lao’s entrepreneurial behavior is culturally influenced by values, beliefs, and disbeliefs. Religion, the caste system, and the family system affected the emergence of entrepreneurship. As Lao is a devoutly Buddhist country, it is important to respect the national religion when conducting business in Lao.
Business culture in Laos is dramatically different from westerner’s business culture. The expressions of each of the value emphases listed in the following Table.1 for one culture can be found.
Table.1 Business value emphasis comparison between Lao and Westerners.
Source: Laoletter (2008). Lao Business Culture blog.
Businesses are often based on personal relations developed within social circles. In Lao culture, work and social affairs are woven together in a seamless pattern. 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 accepted, trusted and credible relationships. Relationships progress slowly in Laos with the step-by-step approach. Asking your partner about family, traditions, culture help you understand your partner better and also build the relationship.
View of Time
Do like the locals and keep your sense of time flexible. Expecting punctuality will often lead to frustration. However, punctuality from foreign partner is appreciated
Official working 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 are extended until 5:00 p.m., and work days can be extended to six days.
In business, Lao are normally greet with a traditional greeting ‘nob’. However, nowadays, handshake 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.
Lao people should be addressed by their first names, preceded by their title ‘Mr//Ms//Madame’ or ‘Than’ (in Lao).
For men, clothing such as shirt and trousers are appropriate for business meetings. Lightweight suits, tie should be worn, especially in special occasion.
Women usually wear long skirts and blouse or sleeveless tops. It’s unusual to see bare Lao skin above the elbow. Short skirts and bare bosoms and navels is not appropriate for business dress
The Lao pay great attention to personal cleanliness and lack of odour. Westerners who have strong body odour should wear soft perfumes.
Official language is Lao. However, English and Fresh are commonly used in Business. Knowledge of French is useful because French is more widely spoken and understood than English, though translators are available
When doing business in Lao, carry lots of business cards. Business cards should be translated into Lao and printed up locally. A common practice is to have English version on one side and Lao version on the reverse.
Business cards should be given and received using both hands as a sign of respect to the person you are dealing with. The example of the correct way to hold business card during exchange is shown in Figure XX. Exchanging business card with one hand also acceptable, but only exchanging with right hand where left hand lightly wrap around lower arm. When receiving another person’s card, always study the card for a few seconds in their details for name and position. Never place it immediately into your pocket or wallet as it is impolite.
At meetings, other people’s business cards should be arranged on the table. It is a sign of respect and helps them keep track of names. Do not play with your Lao colleague’s business card since this is disrespectful. Business card should be treated with respect in same degree of respect as you 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 especially, things with your country’s content such as stamp or coin sets, calendars, pens or pins is a big hit. You can offer one for everyone in the party greeting you. At least be sure there is one for the host or person in the highest rank. Gifts are given in the order of people’s importance. Wrapped gifts will not be opened until everyone has departed. So if you have a gift that requires explanation, present it undraped so you can explain
Shoes and socks make inappropriate gifts in Laos as the foot is the least sacred part of the body. Green and red are the most suitable colors for wrapping paper in Laos. Avoid the color white, which is considered unlucky.
Negotiations in the Lao context can be a grinding, slow process. It is highly unstructured and unpredictable. Lao contracts are short, written in simple language, and focus on principles while western contract is obtuse and legalistic. Relationship is important than the terms and conditions of a specific contract. They view the contract as the starting point of relationship and be able to changes later. The agreement may become meaningless if the circumstances change. Good relationship with your partners helps you in negotiation. If you must break off negotiations, do so carefully. Do not close the door on future cooperation. Seeking legal counsel is public admission that the relationship has failed.
Meeting in Lao is not well-conducted. Those who attend are not expected to contribute or listen carefully. People use meetings as opportunities to take a break from their normal work with the speaker at the front of the room drones on, without pausing for discussion. Some meetings also considered as opportunities to demonstrate group harmony, take a group photo or have a social occasion afterwards.
The highest ranking person in the group should lead the way in, and be the spokesperson. Do not make the mistake of shaking hands with the interpreter first. There is normally business card exchange before the meeting start.
Meetings always begin with informal chit-chat over coffee and/or tea. Drink the tea that is served before launching in to main topic. A great deal of discussion takes place before the main topic of the meeting has been raised. The host will initiate serious talk, and then leave time for you to say a few words in response.
Be alert for signals that the meeting should end. The signals include asking you if you would like more tea, beginning to sum things up, thanking you for coming, and leading you to the door.
If Lao has invited you to a dinner it is important to return the favor. Informal occasions such as this are invaluable in terms of building the relationship. Whenever one accept dining invitation, it is important to host 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.
It is better to have everything translated to Lao. Written documents should be in both Lao and the foreign language. The best way is to have a two column in one page so the Lao reader can easily cross horizontally from the Lao text to the foreign language to clarify or confirm a meaning in Lao. And never write in red ink. It is negative and will displease the recipient.
Context and Style
Lao culture pays more attention to the interaction process itself. Things are not always what they seem. Body languages are quite reserved. There are little eye contact and few expressive gestures. Lao has indirect communication style. Rather than confront a person with an issue or disagreement, Lao people will often approach a difficulty indirectly through praise, compliments or by moving to another subject.
Never ever take yes for 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’. There is really no ‘no’.
Bad news is often introduced bit by bit to “soften the blow.” Wait for the “and….,” which generally is when the full picture is revealed.
Harmony and Conflict
Harmony and avoiding the appearance of conflict in relationships are highly valued in Lao society. Lao have developed very effective non-confrontational ways of communicating disagreement. People are more likely to succeed if avoid anger, confrontation or verbal criticisms which tend to polarize situations and can lead to loss of face. They try to seek an elegant resolution, a subtle way to avoid conflict, and a win-win solution. It is Lao style to reveal little about one’s intentions, goals and needs revelation is perceived as weakness or losing advantage.
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In order to improve communication with Lao business partner, first thing to keep in mind is Keep it simple, boil the message down to its simplest form. English or French or other not mother language, they might be able to speak but it does not mean that the whole message is correctly understand. Remember to Re-confirm everything when having conversation with Lao. Ask what you understand in the conversation is correct. Silence is polite. Silence and pause during the conversation in common in Lao. Another important thing in communication is saying Apologize, when necessary, even if you have not done anything wrong. Lao will apologize because an unfortunate incident has occurred. And the last advise for communication but most effective Learn to speak Lao.
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