Social Conventions & Protocol
Why are we discussing subjects like birth, death and dinners in this section?  What does this have to do with
working with your Lao partner?  In Lao culture, work and social affairs are woven together in a seamless pattern.  The Westerner who may wish to contain work to the confines of the office will certainly fail in his relations with his Lao partner.  This is why it is important to understand and participate in Lao customs and activities outside the workplace.
Greetings and Farewells
The formal greeting both for men and women is to wai- place the hands in prayer-like fashion and raise them
while bowing the head and saying Sabaidi.  Address the most senior person first by offering a wai to him then nod to others while slowly turning around in the wai position.   Shaking hands is an accepted practice among men in official circumstances but not with women.  Avoid hugging or kissing, both in greeting and farewells.
Offer your business card, ideally in Lao script and in the reading position with both hands or with one hand
supporting the other.  Accept the Lao person's card with both hands and examine it before either placing it on
the table or putting it in your pocket.
Physical contact of any sort in public between the sexes is not practised.  Western males should understand that any physical contact can be extremely embarrassing for the Lao of the opposite sex.  Physical contact in public is not accepted traditionally, even between husband and wife, although this is changing slowly among
younger urban people.  Educated Lao women who have lived abroad in Europe or North America may feel at
home with a hand shake or even a kiss by way of greeting but these are few and far between.
The Baci
The Baci (pronounced "baa-see") is a unique Lao ceremony of animist origin which pre-dates the arrival of
Buddhism in the country.  It is a ceremony of welcome or farewell, marriage, celebrating the recently born, honouring achievements and giving thanks.  Performed by a respected male elder of the community, the Baci
restores balance and harmony to the individual and community and conveys goodwill and hospitality.  You will
be invited to many Baci.  If you are not, there is something wrong with your relationship with your Lao partner. A baci may even be held in your honour to welcome you to the country.  Most often, you will be invited in the
context of an important event in your Lao partner's family such as his going away for foreign study or the
celebration of a recently born baby.  You should put some money in an envelope with your business card and
place it on the phakuan which is an elegant arrangement of flowers, lit candles and cotton strings tied to sticks on a cone of woven banana leaves sitting on a khan or silver urn.   A bottle of whiskey would also be appreciated as a contribution to the occasion.
Guests sit cross-legged or with legs tucked underneath to one side on mats with hands folded in prayer encircling the phakuan.  The elder conducts the ceremony with hands in prayer while reciting a monologue combination of Pali and Lao.  Afterwards, the elder takes the cotton string and ties it around the wrist
of the person for whom the baci is being held while offering a prayer of good wishes.   Then participants take
cotton strings and repeat the ceremony with each other.  If someone approaches you with a cotton string, respond with a wai then extend your arm with upturned wrist and palm while raising your other palm near your ear.  Your Lao host will offer good wishes to you while tying the cotton onto your extended wrist.  Sometimes food such as an egg or cooked chicken will be placed on your palm for extra good luck as the cotton is being tied to your wrist.  Often, other Lao will touch your arm or side from behind with extended hand to offer their wishes as well.  You should do likewise when someone else is having the cotton tied to their wrist, if not directly then to someone beside you who is in direct contact with the recipient.  The baci is a unique ceremony of celebration and community.  Enjoy and participate and leave the cotton strings on your wrist for three days at least to derive maximum benefits and to respect local practice.
Politeness and Ritual
It is important to understand and follow the rules of politeness and rituals which govern every valued
relationship.  Be polite, considerate, humble and understanding, even if you are not feeling that way.  You can decline a last minute invitation if your schedule does not permit it.  If you are flexible, it is best to accept it because declining could be interpreted as a sign that you are dissatisfied with your business dealings, or that you have been offended.  If you must decline, point out that you would have been able to attend had you known earlier.
The Informal System
Sometimes circumventing the bureaucracy in order to get things done more efficiently is necessary.  Generally,
rules are unclear and unwritten, allowing considerable flexibility to work the system.   But some foreign advisors believe that using the informal system is illegal or immoral, and refuse to participate.  For example, getting a telephone installed may require the payment of money, whiskey or lunch.  Getting things released from customs can be faster when whiskey is provided to well-placed individuals.  Such extras are not essential if one is prepared to wait the normal period.
Most often, foreigners who choose to use the informal system will not be involved directly in the transactions.
They will be taken care of by the office "fixer," someone who has the right skills and contacts.
Lao people are understandably proud of their cuisine, and they want you to share in the experience.  Dinners are used to greet old friends, start new relationships, or to show appreciation.  They can also be used when
negotiations are rocky.  It is meant to signal that the relationship is expected to survive and prosper despite any difficulties.
Lao organisations often have hospitality budgets.  Entertaining guests is an entrenched way of doing business in the Lao culture.  Some foreigners express reservations about accepting this hospitality when they see the country's pressing social and economic problems.  It would be considered a great insult, however, not to accept this hospitality.
You will cement the relationship by being polite, grateful and gracious, and by making the right toasts and
comments.  Toasts are short and contain little substance.  The primary function is to thank your host and convey your sincere appreciation.  An appropriate time to speak is usually during the soup or dessert, but make sure your host has already spoken first.
Avoid talk related to business unless your host initiates it.  Avoid controversial topics.  If your host asks you
personal or prying questions about your family or finances, for example, don't take offence; there is little of the
Western sense of privacy in the Lao PDR.  Politely answer, perhaps prefacing your reply with information about your country's ways.
In-city dinners are always held in restaurants or hotels where food is shared at large tables. Let your hosts place you at the table.
Don't praise food you don't like or your hosts will continue to serve it to you.  It's okay to inform your host
you cannot eat a dish because it is too spicy.  If you have special dietary requirements, let your hosts know
beforehand.  Don't protest when someone offers you food, they will think you are just being polite.  Take it, with thanks.  You don't have to eat it.  Leaving food on your plate is not impolite.   Instead, it indicates you have eaten your fill.
Formal dinners usually offer many dishes which may already be placed on the table at the time of seating.  Your
hosts will feel responsible and want you to eat well.  They will continuously put food on your plate and encourage you to eat more.  They will expect you to try every dish, even those your Western palate may object to, so pace yourself to ensure you partake of most plates on the table.  Sometimes there will be only Western cutlery and sometimes chopsticks will be available as well.  Do not play with chopsticks during dinner.  Above all, enjoy the spirit of the occasion.  Whisky and soda will be replenished before you have finished your current drink.  Coffee and after-dinner drinks are almost never served.  There is rarely any lingering after the meal.   The host will make a brief closing remark and stand up - the signal that the dinner is over and time to go home, the so-called eat-and-run custom.
Dinners are usually held in the evening around 19:00 hours.  You can generally be assured of being back to your
hotel or residence by 21:00 or 22:00 hours.  The host always pays, and payment is arranged in advance.
While on the food front, if someone brings food to your house return the dishes unwashed.   That means the food was tasty and much appreciated.  Washing the dish before you return it gives the wrong connotation.  But you should return the dishes the same day.
Wedding Invitations
You have two choices - to attend or not to attend.  In either case keep the wedding invitation and the envelope for you should enclose some money in it (ask your Lao colleagues how much would be appropriate) and pass it on to someone going to the wedding reception or you can even pass it on to the bride or groom after the wedding.  Each contribution is usually recorded upon receipt by relatives of the host.  After the wedding the list is reviewed and the amount of money given is usually viewed as the degree of respect for the bride or groom.
Should you decide to attend, and you should if possible because it is fun and it shows your respect and liking for the bride or groom and family, then you may be invited to the baci (either in the morning or early afternoon) or the wedding reception in the evening.   Most often, foreigners are invited to the wedding reception only.  For the baci you may bring some 500 or 1000 Kip notes to tie knot into the strings you tie onto the wrist of the bride and groom while wishing them a happy marriage.  If you bring a present, keep it until your turn to tie the cotton strings, and then, instead of tying money, place the gift on the palm of the bride or groom, depending on which one invited you.
For the wedding reception, deposit the envelope with money either at the reception table or in a special box for this purpose after the reception line.  Instead of money you may give a gift which is usually a bottle of whiskey or some household item such as towels or bed linen.   These are delivered at the table after the reception line. Always stick your invitation envelope on the gift so they know the gift giver.
If close to the person, you will be told about the funeral by the family or work colleagues.  Death is a sad event even if somewhat muted by the Buddhist belief in re-incarnation and the feelings of calmness and fatalism.  Lao
call the house where someone has died a "good house" (hyan dee) as opposed to an "unlucky house" (hyan gum) where a baby is born.  Lao grief is assuaged by the full emotional support of family and friends near and far.  Lao grief is somewhat distracted by the heavy ritual surrounding preparations for the cremation and the rites following death for several days.
In the case of the death of a close relative of a Lao friend or colleague you may be invited to the funeral.  Often colleagues in the office collect money for the family.  You may not be asked for money but it is a good gesture to offer money to those collecting.  A funeral lasts about an hour.  You may join the procession from the house to the temple or wat and then attend the cremation ceremony at the wat.  After cremation has begun, guests take their leave offering their condolences to the family a final time at the wat.   The participation of a foreigner on such an occasion is a great honour for the Lao.   There is no strict dress code but one should not be casually dressed or wear bright red clothes.
More difficult is the situation where a close friend or colleague dies such as a counterpart or a maid or driver.  In this case you would want to show more support and concern.  The family would appreciate a visit from you to their house.  No invitation will be offered.  In order to avoid interrupting a ceremony ask them or have an
intermediate ask them when it would be convenient for you to drop by.  Dress normally but not too casual and
prepare a closed envelope with money to help cover the high costs of the funeral.   This may seem strange to your customs but will certainly be appreciated in the Lao culture.
Once at the house, present your envelope to the closest relative (wife, husband, mother or father) and sit for an hour or so to chat about the deceased.  It is proper to ask how the person died, how sudden it came, etc. and to comment on your relationship with the deceased and how good a person they were.  You may also listen to others asking the same questions and it is appropriate to simply stay silent and observe the conversation.   Do not be surprised to see the house full of guests playing cards and others carrying on with laughter and much animation.  It is Lao custom to bring some laughter into a "good house".  However, you should not engage in this behaviour.
Birth of a Baby
A birth is most often celebrated by a baci.  With the high death rates of infants, life is not assured and there are many superstitions about birth and babies.  Therefore it is best to refrain from questions about the baby.  Do not ask for the name of the child and do not give any clothing for the baby before delivery or before the baci for the baby.
Gift - giving
Carry small gifts.  Anything with your country's content (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.  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.  If you give a gift, don't always expect a thank-you since thanks are
expressed in more tangible ways such as reciprocal favours and gifts.
Lao attitudes can be difficult for Westerners to comprehend.  The smile is the most likely reaction to an
embarrassing situation.  This infuriates Westerners, as for example, in a situation where they have almost killed a Lao motorcyclist who has just executed the most improbable turn.  The Westerner slams on the brakes and barely misses the motorcyclist and is greeted by a calm smile from the untouched motorcyclist.
Westerners frequently comment on such Lao traits.  One should remember that the Lao are not perturbed in such situations so it is best for you to stay cool as well.
Culture shock is often an accumulation of day-to-day frustrations and difficulty.   Some foreign advisors find there are times when they cannot bring themselves to go outside their apartments or hotels or they find that little things are bothering them more than normal.  These are signs of culture shock.
To ease your transition, bring photos of family and friends.  Reading material, comfort foods, music, favourite
toys, spices, or sports equipment.  Try to recapture some of the things familiar to you.  Cook Western food at home or obtain your country's newspapers or magazines.   Some people reject this strategy at first because they believe it diminishes the cultural experience.  Still, if needed it may help.
Develop a project for yourself. If you are planning to collect something, or travel, prepare in advance by bringing books and materials with you.  Try to learn the language.  It will make life a lot easier and will impress your Lao partners.   Maintain a sense of humour.  Seek support from friends and colleagues.   Remember, you are not alone, the Lao PDR is a very social place.  There is a slower pace of life with more time to devote to friends. Enjoy!


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