|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
Written documents should be in both Lao and the foreign
language, ideally in a two column presentation so the
It is a good practice to write brief minutes of meetings
and send them to Lao participants even if they are in
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
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
Lao people place the greatest emphasis on striking the
right balance with someone, or developing the
The best way to deal with a problem (or to make it known
that you have one) is at a Lao wishing-ceremony
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
In general, information is not volunteered, so it is
important to ask the right questions. Bad news is often
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
Tips for Improving Communication
Keep it simple boil your message down to
its simplest form. Leave out all qualifying statements, subordinate
Learn to speak Lao if you plan to work in
the country for a couple years or more. Language is the window to
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.
Another approach is to confirm your understanding with the
Lao and listen carefully for their response. If 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
Be brief and factual in your
presentations. Clearly structured presentations, with information written on a
|Understanding Lao Culture | Communication | Working Effectively with Your Lao Partner|
|Social Conventions and Protocol | Conclusions|