Oral and Written

Lao culture is still very much an oral culture with rich proverbs and expressions.  Person-to-person dialogue is the preferred method of communication in the Lao PDR.  Phone calls are used less often, in part because the phone is still a new technology.  Lao will rarely announce or introduce themselves over the phone.   They expect you will recognise their voice.  Letter writing and faxes are the least preferred.  Writing requires translation and typing which are overworked services.  Also, committing something to paper can require the approval of many people up and down the bureaucracy.  The Lao may hesitate to put something on paper that may come back to haunt them later.  Lao people may regard the written expression as conveying more commitment, responsibility and finality than they wish to communicate.

Try sounding out your partners.  Encourage them to express their needs and desires verbally before going to
writing.  However, if decisions become lost in endless rounds of discussion or "yes, buting," a written format
may help bring closure.  Be careful not to assume that because there is no objection, the Lao party is in
agreement.  Obviously, you will have to determine when it is best to abandon one approach for another.

Written documents should be in both Lao and the foreign language, ideally in a two column presentation so the
Lao reader can easily cross horizontally from the Lao text to the foreign language to clarify or confirm a
meaning in Lao.

It is a good practice to write brief minutes of meetings and send them to Lao participants even if they are in
English although it is better to have them translated.  On the one hand, it shows your openness and reliability and on the other hand it may be useful to have written records in case of subsequent disagreement and/or uncertainty.  Written communication needs to be introduced into the Lao working style.  Westerners can aid in this process.

Never write in red ink.  It is negative and will displease the recipient.

If you are given information or instructions you are unclear about or with which you disagree, it is best to request them in writing, "so you can show it to the boss."  This is an effective way to sort out the matter.   Most often, Lao are reluctant to put things in writing for fear of it getting them in trouble and this will be the end of it.

Educated Lao have superior linguistic skills.  Indeed, there is no country in East Asia where the educated
population is so multilingual - a result of the foreign domination and influence throughout the twentieth century.  It is not uncommon for the educated adult to speak French, Russian, Vietnamese in addition to the native tongue and the closely related Thai language.  English is still weak as a foreign language but has become the most sought after language to learn among the young generation.  Generally speaking, Lao have better oral than written skills in foreign languages.

The Lao pay great attention to personal cleanliness and lack of odour.  Westerners who have strong body odour or who emit strong perfumes send out the wrong message and may harm their prospects for professional

Harmony and Conflict

Harmony and avoiding the appearance of conflict in relationships, are highly valued in Lao society.  Differences
are suppressed in hierarchical societies, and the Lao have developed very sophisticated and effective,
non-confrontational ways of communicating disagreement.

Lao people place the greatest emphasis on striking the right balance with someone, or developing the
relationship, rather than discussing the topic at hand.  In a discussion, Westerners are more inclined to assert their position or "put their cards in the table" as the expression goes.  You are more likely to succeed if you avoid anger, confrontation or verbal criticism which tend to polarise situations and can lead to loss of face. Seek an elegant resolution, a subtle way to avoid conflict, and a win-win solution.  Use a mutually trusted go-between if necessary.  Resolve any differences outside of formal meetings on a private or one-on-one basis.

The best way to deal with a problem (or to make it known that you have one) is at a Lao wishing-ceremony
called a baci.  While tying the cotton string around someone's wrist, you may gently say, "And in future please
take a proper note of the person who phones me" or whatever your problem may be.   It requires an
encyclopaedic memory to dredge up such issues at what is supposed to be a festive occasion, but it may be worth it.

It is Lao style to reveal little about one's intentions, goals and needs.  Such revelation is perceived as weakness or losing advantage.   Western style tends toward the reverse - toward revealing oneself with a view toward building a stronger more intimate relationship.

Context and Style

There is a fundamental difference in orientation between Westerners and Lao.  Westerners tend to see life and
particularly work, as a series of problems to be solved, whereas most Lao view their work as a situation to be
accepted.  How does the foreign advisor deal with this contradiction?  Certainly not by trying to make the Lao see the situation as you do.  They can't and won't.   One way is to determine what the Lao perceptions of their workplace are and what aspects cause them the most difficulty.  If one helps alleviate one or more of these
difficulties, then there may be more success in getting the job done.

Lao culture pays more attention to the interaction process itself.  Anticipate that discussions may take longer in the Lao PDR than they do in the West.  There is considerably longer lead-in to the issues.  A great deal of
discussion takes place before the main topic of the meeting has been raised.  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.

Western culture pays more attention to what is stated explicitly.  Your Lao partners will view a question such as "What's your bottom line?" as insensitive or aggressive.  Conversely, your Lao partners' indirect responses
might cause you to incorrectly conclude they are playing games or are not serious about the endeavour.

Lack of response can convey disagreement more strongly than words.  Body language tends to be reserved in the Lao culture.  There is little eye contact and few expressive gestures other than the "wai" the Lao greeting.
Generally, it is very difficult for Westerners to read the cues, especially where emphasis is placed on the spoken word.

Westerners should not interpret their Lao counterparts' indirect communication style as intentionally obscure.  They must develop skills to understand it.  For example, "yes" and "no" have a variety of meanings. "Yes" may indicate the message has been heard and understood, but not necessarily agreed to.  "Yes" may mean "no" when it is impolite to say "no" directly.  "No" often means "Yes", for example if you ask a Lao whether he has heard a certain rumour he will respond "No" which really means, "Of course, I've heard but I want to see how much you know about it first so let's see what you have to say about it."  Westerners who do not train themselves to listen for subtle meaning can find themselves in misunderstandings causing hard feelings.

You may not know you have agreement with your Lao counterparts until they actually do what they agreed to do.

Communication Breakdown

Pay attention to rumours because they may reveal viewpoints people refuse to state directly.  Sudden change in behaviour or position may indicate other agendas are operating, or that a breakdown in communication has
occurred.  Things are not always what they seem.

In general, information is not volunteered, so it is important to ask the right questions.  Bad news is often
introduced bit by bit to "soften the blow."  Wait for the "and....," which generally comes towards the end of a conversation.  That is when the full picture is revealed.

Misunderstandings can arise for a host of cultural and linguistic reasons. If your Lao partners speak English, don't assume their comprehension is good.  People who speak English well are often reluctant to admit they don't understand something that was said.

There can be great difficulties with interpreters, too.   This is dealt with later on in the interpreter section.

Misunderstandings can occur between you and your headquarters in the West.  It is often hard if not impossible for people back home to understand your Lao environment.  Regular and clear communication with them is vital.

You must work constantly to avoid misunderstandings.   Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that
communication is your fundamental and abiding responsibility while in the Lao PDR.

Tips for Improving Communication

Keep it simple boil your message down to its simplest form.  Leave out all qualifying statements, subordinate
clauses, etc.  The simpler your message, the more likely it will get through.   Never try and make your point
through a joke.

Learn to speak Lao if you plan to work in the country for a couple years or more.  Language is the window to
the soul of a culture.  If you understand it you gain enormous insights into the culture and a deeper affinity and respect from the people.  Foreign employers with foresight insist on their people learning the local language.  Others say it is too costly.  In this case, one should simply ignore the employer and take lessons during working
hours and pay for them yourself.

Re-confirm everything.  It is a Lao communication style to repeat a message many times during a conversation, perhaps to ensure the meaning has been clearly understood.  Ask for clarification or opinions.   To help get your point across, use simple straightforward terms that lend themselves to direct translation.  If there are no objections, don't assume your partners agree.  If there are no questions, don't assume they understand.
Sometimes an effective technique is to ask your Lao partner to tell you what he or she plans to do based on your conversation.  In this way any misunderstanding will surface.

Another approach is to confirm your understanding with the Lao and listen carefully for their response.  If your
understanding is incorrect, they will usually let you know in a gentle way.  It is common for the Lao to affirm
your understanding with a simple yes and then proceed to describe their conclusion which may be something
quite different or even the opposite of what you have just described.  The Westerner often seeks clarification with either-or questions like, "Are we leaving for Savannakhet on Tuesday or Thursday?"  This technique is often frustrated by the Lao response which will simply be, "Yes," either because he doesn't know, because he has misunderstood your question, or because it has not been decided and he doesn't want to bring this to your

Persistence pays off.  If something important is not happening as you expected, ask for a special meeting to deal with the situation immediately.  Face-to-face and written communication will indicate you are serious. Sometimes one has to simply put enough energy into a situation to overcome its inertia.  However one must choose one's issues carefully.  The constantly persistent Westerner will not only fail, he may well go mad and look ridiculous to the Lao in the process!  Persisting in a Lao way also means posing a question which you are asking for the fifth time as if it were the first time.  Don't refer to your previous queries, simply ask as though it is the first time the question has occurred to you.

Silence during a discussion can make the Westerner uncomfortable.  Lao people are more comfortable with long pauses, and do not feel they have to fill every gap in the conversation.  Silence is polite.   It signals that you have the undivided attention of your listeners.  It can also be used effectively to gently convince your partners to consider another course of action after they have made an unreasonable request.  Silence is often the result of Buddhist teachings of not telling lies or of not saying something that will have a detrimental effect on someone else.  One must learn to diagnose the source of silence in a given situation.

Consult with your partners from the beginning, and develop new ways of doing things together.  It takes time to build trust and support.  Nobody likes surprises.  Everything is orchestrated in the Lao PDR, so take the time to ensure that everyone is in agreement.  Have your written material translated into Lao as much as possible and work with the translators to help them understand the context and meaning of your words.  If you are faced with voluminous reports in English, summarise the key points on paper and discuss them with your partners.

Apologise, when necessary, even if you have not done anything wrong.  Lao will apologise because an
unfortunate incident has occurred, not necessarily because they feel they are to blame for it.  It is considered
virtuous to be the first to apologise in order to smooth over any unpleasantness.  An apology is not necessarily an admission of guilt.

Be brief and factual in your presentations.  Clearly structured presentations, with information written on a
blackboard or flip-chart, are the most appreciated.  Use simple direct English and avoid slang, proverbs and
technical jargon.  Since most Lao people are unfamiliar with experiential learning techniques and participatory
group facilitation methods, you may experience some difficulty in introducing them, but once introduced, Lao
love to discuss and debate just as much as Westerners.


Foreword | Lao PDR | Introduction | What is a Partnership? | Working with a Lao Partner

Understanding Lao Culture | Communication | Working Effectively with Your Lao Partner
Social Conventions and Protocol | Conclusions