Understanding Lao Culture
Everyone is aware there are major differences between Asian and Western culture.  Despite this fact, Westerners are often frustrated and culturally shocked by the extent of the differences.  But the more you learn and become aware of them, the better you will be able to cope as you go about your life and work in the Lao PDR.
Despite global modernisation, much of Lao culture is still profoundly influenced by Buddhist thinking, attitudes
and behaviour.  It is impossible to understand Lao culture without having at least a basic understanding of the
Hinayana Buddhist tradition which came to the country from Cambodia over 450 years ago.
Much behaviour can be traced back to the five Buddhist precepts
Buddhist Precept Purpose of the Precept
1. Do not kill humans or animals to foster kindness of heart
2. Do not steal or commit corrupt acts to foster love of work and honest effort
3. Do not commit adultery to deepen love of one's spouse
4. Do not tell lies to foster honesty in word and deed
5. Do not take alcohol or drugs to a void carelessness
Acceptance is the Lao woridview.  Things are as they are and should be.  Why would you wish to try and
change this inevitability?  I am responsible for myself and you are for yourself.   There is no need for discussion or confrontation.  Much of this perspective comes from the Buddhist belief in re-incarnation.  Events, for better or for worse, are often related to one's previous incarnation and are therefore accepted without challenge or emotion.  One must behave in accordance with proper Buddhist conduct with a view to one's next incarnation.
In spite of this general posture of acceptance, the Lao believe their world is in constant flux with one
incarnation flowing into the next.  This is why there is so much patience.  If things are not okay at this time, maybe they will be better later, or in the next incarnation.
Sometimes expressions capture the essence of a culture.   Two frequently used Lao expressions are the responses bo penh nyang and thammadha.   Like all frequently used expressions they have a variety of meanings depending on the context.  But all meanings derive from a Buddhist perspective of acceptance of the prevailing situation.  Bo penh nyang is sometimes used in its literal meaning, "No problem" but it also has other meanings like "never mind" or "are you all right?" or "I forgive and forget your action."  This expression sometimes frustrates Westerners with the world view that problems are there to be solved, not to be accepted.
The response thammadha is also steeped in Buddhist philosophy.  Fundamentally, it means acceptance of one's fate - that one is born, grows old and will die.  But it is also used in more day-to-day situations to mean "average," "the norm" or "proceeding as usual."  For example, if a man is fired from his job he may not be sad; he may be thammada meaning he accepts his fate and does not harbour resentment.
Lao are truly a people of the heart.  The list below from a Vientiane Times article, December 9-15, 1994, shows
how many expressions include the word chai or "heart."  A culture with so many shades of meaning based on
the heart is a deeply sensitive culture.  One should always bear this in mind before making a strong comment or
taking direct action.
-to understand is to enter the heart -khao chai
-to be glad is to Feel good at heart -di chai
-to be angry is to feel bad in the heart -chai hai
-to be sorry is to have lost the heart -sia chai
-to have empathy is to see the heart-hen chai
-to feel upset is to be unhappy at heart -ouk chai
-to be sensitive (touchy) is to have a small heart -chai noy
-to be stingy is to have a narrow heart -chai khap khaep
-to be startled is to drop the heart -tok chai
-to be absent minded is to have a heart which floats -chai loy
-to hesitate is to have many hearts -lai chai
-to be worried is to have a sick heart -bo sabai chai
-to be content is to have a serene heart -sabai chai
-to be without worries is to feel cool in the heart -chai yen
-to be generous is to have a large heart -chai kuang
-to have a heavy heart -thouk chai
-to be happy -souk chai
-to be easily persuaded is to have an easy heart -chai ngai
-to be decisive -chai det
-to be bitter to the point of revenge is to have a black heart -chai dum
-to be charitable is to have a festive heart -chai boun
-to be generous is to be big hearted -chai nyai
-to be impatient is to have a hot heart -chai hon
-to be patient is to have a persevering heart -chai ot thon
-to be honest is to have a pure heart -chai bolisud
-to be brave is to have a daring heart -chai ka
-to be timid is to have a cautious heart -chai boh ka
-to control one's emotions is to have a strong heart -chai kaeng
-to die is to have your heart torn apart -chai khart
If there is one single, all embracing point to be made to a Westerner working in the Lao PDR, it would be to
never assume anything, not even what you consider to be the most basic of understandings.   Sometimes what you see as abnormal, the Lao will see as normal.  When you think you have an understanding, the Lao will surprise you by a statement which appears to contradict your understanding.  Quite often, what you take for granted, based on your cultural bias, is interpreted differently by the Lao, based on their cultural orientation.
How then, do you survive in the Lao PDR?  How do you cope?  How do you even manage your daily life?  Some
ex-pats simply ignore everything that does not fit into their cultural framework and, in effect, wall themselves off from the country, the Lao people, and the complications caused by cultural differences.  Although these expats may manage to cope, they are marginally effective in their work and they miss the benefits of developing and experiencing cross-cultural relationships.  They learn nothing, or very little, about the Lao PDR or its extraordinary people.
The Lao have a rich sense of humour, perhaps one of the richest.  If you cannot experience it, you have missed something precious.  The Lao love "small talk". If your life is too boring you tell stories.  Talk about your latest encounter with a ghost, your cascade in a barrel over Niagara Falls, how you met your loved one on a deserted south Pacific isle, how to prepare the ultimate snake soup...
Competitive humour is much appreciated.  A foreigner was purchasing barbecued heart at a small roadside
stand and asked what animal it was.  "Human" was the answer.  The surrounding crowd of Lao loved it and
the score was 1-0 in favour of the vendor.  But the female foreigner, poker-faced responded to the female
vendor, "Well I hope it wasn't a male since men's hearts are always much more bitter."  This brought on
enthusiastic applause from the assembled onlookers and several skewers of barbecued heart for free.  The lady
vendor said she was more than paid by the pungent reply.  "Fighting" with words is an art form among the Lao.  There is a type of folk song which is basically a competition between men and women.  Whomever has the last word wins.
Collectivism versus Individualism
Collective tradition in the Lao culture expresses itself in work or community tasks.  Building the local school or
someone's house generates the enthusiastic contribution of the whole neighbourhood.   The civil service office environment is also subject to collective action in such matters as cleaning the office compound, attending political meetings or having a festive celebration over some occasion.  However, one should not mistake collective acts at the office as necessarily stemming from spontaneous feeling of the individuals concerned. These are most often ordered by the authorities and therefore obeyed by staff.
In many ways, the Lao people are not as collectivist or conformist as most of their East Asian neighbours.  This is because it is a country with 65 ethnic minorities each with their own identity and language.  Even the Lao, the largest ethnic group constituting close to half the population is considered a minority in its own country.  So collectivism and conformity is a cultural impossibility.  An additional force working against the Asian collectivist tendency is the deep Buddhist belief that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions. This leads to people going their own way and not interfering with that of others.
All this is not to say the Lao are strong individualists.   They are not.  At a certain level they appear conformist
because of their Buddhist belief in their personal insignificance in the larger scheme of things.  So people tend to stick to their own knitting and not attempt to change the world.  But underneath this superficial conformist
appearance there is considerable individuality if you take time to uncover it.
Authority goes with age or seniority, position or status.   As a result, the concept of the patriarch is very important.  Juniors show deference to seniors and the dictates of the leaders are not questioned.  Such
behaviour is considered upright, prudent and a benefit to society.  Control is normally from the top down.
Not challenging authority directly, however, should not be confused with acceptance.  There are many quiet ways the Lao will use to deal with authority they do not agree with.
How does a foreigner acquire authority?  The best way is by not acting as though you should have any.  Maybe you are called an advisor.   But if you always comment on everything, people will soon stop asking for any advice.  The Lao are acutely aware of who is genuine and trustworthy.   Therefore, foreigners who are straightforward and critical though very un-Lao, are more liked by their colleagues than others who may try to "be Lao" but come across as unfriendly or disrespectful.  Your colleagues will forgive a great deal if they sense that you really care for them and their country.  Once you are genuinely liked by your colleagues, you can assume certain authority through the informal system.
Responsibility and Decision-making
Much of social, economic and political activity in the Lao PDR is organised around groups.  Even though
decision-making is hierarchical and authority centralised, the process is consensual.   Many people are consulted before a decision is ratified and implemented.  The process is deliberate, time consuming, and what most Westerners might consider excessively cautious.  On the other hand, once decisions are taken implementation moves ahead steadily since the decision-making process has already built consensus.
In our daily working lives in the West, we have some degree of decision-making authority and we assume our
Lao counterparts have it as well.  They do not.  This has serious implications for getting things done in the Lao PDR.  How do you know who is responsible for decisions?  Indeed is there any one person responsible for the decision you need made?  This is information not readily volunteered.  Who do you approach when you require a certain course of action?  Often no one can tell you. It can be very frustrating.
The hierarchical structure of Lao society is manifest in bureaucratic organisations.  Decision-making is normally
centralised among a few with little, if any, downward delegation of authority.  Lao people prefer an authoritative leader who is considerate, capable, and who provides clear-cut directions.  Individual initiative is unlikely to flourish in such an environment.  If an employee or lower leader takes initiative, it may be viewed as being aggressive, encroaching on their supervisor's authority, or attempting to seek power.  Assuming a high profile, standing out from the group by taking initiative, or assuming responsibility for anything not specifically assigned, are actions that invite criticism or punishment.
Employees are expected to follow leaders' directions almost without question.  Challenging authority can have
serious and harmful consequences.  When differences between those in authority and their subordinates cannot be avoided, the subordinates must be as ambiguous and unassertive as possible in trying to persuade their superiors.  If the superiors wind up making decisions or demanding actions that are unacceptable, it is common for subordinates to resist passively.  For example, they might react slowly, make excuses, fail to understand or simply stay away from work.  Decision-making in a Lao organisatlon can be very cumbersome.  Bringing about change can be slow and difficult.
A Westerner entering this environment with a mandate to change things may have a rough time.  Success will
come only with the patience, persistence, skill, trust and understanding of everyone involved.  Decisions may be made and agreed to, but your partner may take no action to implement them.  Your solutions to mutually
identified problems may be ignored.  Your partners may or may not offer reasons why they are inappropriate or
cannot be done.  It is incumbent upon you to try and find out the reasons for inaction and develop mutually
acceptable solutions.  You will have to be attuned to the Lao step-by-step way and sensitive to your partners'
situation.  You will have to observe, listen, learn and develop an appreciation for the restrictions and power
structure in which your partners must function.  From time to time you may not get it right, resulting in passive
resistance or outright lack of cooperation from your Lao colleagues.
It is a good strategy to court the senior people in the office.  Each office has powerful, respected leaders.  If you build a good working relationship with them, they can help you navigate.
You may already be familiar with the term "losing face."  Face is the accumulated personal capital or
indebtedness between individuals, and is a fundamental feature of Lao culture.  It is at the core of the system of interpersonal relationships and often the key to making a hierarchical and bureaucratic system work.
To lose face, or to cause another to lose face, is serious.  Any form of direct confrontation leading
to the appearance of winners and losers must be avoided.  This may require extreme diplomacy, ambiguity or even evasiveness.  Fear of losing face can make Lao people very sensitive to insult.
Face is given when indebtedness is honoured.  It is important for a Lao person to build and maintain face
in order to shape a powerful and influential image.  The more important one appears to be, the more likely one's requests will be granted.  On the other hand, people go to elaborate lengths to give face to others and prevent them from losing it.  Giving face may mean offering gifts and lavish compliments or treating someone with great respect, for example, by using the respectful terms like achjan or teacher.
Foreigners will be forgiven for not understanding the social conventions related to face.  If your views and
inclinations differ from your colleagues, be consistent in your message and make sure you communicate why you feel as you do.  Don't be shamed into doing something you strongly oppose because someone has told you your decision will cause them to lose face.   It is important our partners understand why Westerners might hold a particular view, and why that view may be valued in our society.  After all, this is part of a successful exchange.  That said, learn to let little things go and avoid situations that might embarrass your partner. Embarrassing a Lao person in public can lead to serious and even permanent damage to a personal or professional relationship.
Face is an enormously complex concept which we Westerners will never master.  Why are Lao friendly to people they detest?  Why do they pretend?  Why don't they tell you they don't like your style but instead invent convoluted excuses for a course of action?  All of this is connected to the notion of face.  When your assistant tells you he must leave the job because his wife is ill, don't offer to help cure his wife.  He has just told you he is quitting for any number of reasons but doesn't want you to lose face.
How can you detect the real meaning in such situations.   You probably never will.  But you can detect signals of situations of face and react accordingly.  Words in the West mean what they say.  In Asia words are used as indicators or direction signals and not much more.  It is up to the listener to determine what response to make to the signal.  Truth is not in the words but behind the words - and in silence.  It is much more complex and
sophisticated than communication in the West.
Family, Friends and other Relationships
Relationships are the currency of business and social life in the Lao PDR.  When resources and information are
scarce, relationships count a lot.  In order to get things done, personal contacts and familial relationships are
drawn upon in all aspects of daily life, from finding a job to getting a license.   The Lao have very close family and tribal relationships, which they value above everything else.  Obligation is used to establish a network that can be called upon in time of need.  It is not a cold, calculating exchange, but rather proof the relationship is alive and well.
In the Lao PDR, there are two categories of relationships, moo linh and moo tai roughly translated as "play
friends" and "die friends" respectively.  Moo linh are pals who may pick each other up for a dousing spree,
attend each others' festive occasions and exploit their relationship professionally.   This kind of relationship is
based on mutual advantage.  When mutual advantage ceases, the relationship usually dies.  You may experience such relationships during your stay.  The moo tai relationship involves long term ties such as family or growing up together.  This relationship means relying on each other 100 percent for both the good and the bad times.   You will never enter this kind of relationship with a Lao unless you live your entire life in the Lao PDR.
Relationships between Lao people are primarily based on family ties with less interest shown to strangers or
outsiders.  Trust is limited to those within this circle.  When the Lao have problems, need help or require a
confidant, they turn to family members or close friends, and less frequently to their associates.  As a result, a Lao person will spend most of his or her energy on relationships within this circle rather than among strangers, work colleagues or casual acquaintances.  Lao people may show shyness with strangers and rarely initiate a
conversation with someone they do not know, except, perhaps, if they wish to practice their English.  Although
these characteristics will not prevent you from making Lao friends, it may require considerable time and patience on your part to develop close, trusting relationships.
Because of the high value Lao people place on family and friendships, your Lao colleagues will have obligations
and responsibilities which will require them to miss work from time to time.  Expect parents to take time off when a child suddenly falls sick.  Colleagues may be required to take meals to hospitalised family members during the day.
Westerners are accustomed to a wide circle of friends who change over time.  Once established, Lao people will
maintain friendships forever.  Friends are expected to share in most aspects of each other's lives.  The
responsibilities and obligations might be considered onerous to a Westerner.
Lao friends spend a large portion of their non-work time with each other.  They routinely drop over unexpectedly at any time of the day or night, yet this is not considered an infringement of privacy.  The sharing of personal items and private business is expected and taken for granted, regardless of how valuable the items may be or how personal the business.
Lao people may sometimes test their relationship with you by making a request.  For example they might request to borrow money or your car.   The way to turn down a request is to refuse, but with an excuse, "Yes but today I need the car for a trip to Nong Khai.  I will tell you later when you can borrow it."  This is usually enough of a signal to indicate your point.
As with many Asian cultures, the position of women is complex and not always as it seems.  On the one hand, the role of women in Lao society is still traditional according to Western values.  Women carry a great responsibility in the family with little recognition from men.  The inferior position of Lao women is deeply entrenched in Buddhist tradition and is perceived as natural by the great majority of Lao women.  For educated Lao women, however, this tradition can pose considerable difficulty.  There are few Lao women in senior positions in the public sector.  Yet 63 percent of the informal business sector and the larger private sector organisations are run by women.  The Lao constitution acknowledges the full equality of women but there is still a large gap between policy and reality.
And yet, if one looks at the family system, at least of lowland people in central and northern parts of the country, it is essentially matriarchal.  Land, house and inheritance is passed through the wife not the husband. When the woman comes from a wealthy family, the wife has enormous power.  Her husband moves into her family, behaves as a kept man and does what her family tells him to.
Women have considerable freedom and independence.   Women may even outnumber men as entrepreneurs.  One sees as many, if not more, young women driving motorcycles and cars as men.
You may be in the position to encourage the active participation of women colleagues.  If given the opportunity, Lao women will assume responsibility at the work place and will demonstrate their considerable competence.   On many occasions, women are overlooked because their bosses assume family responsibilities prevent them from playing more active roles at work and women often succumb to this understanding.  This is where your encouragement is required.   If you can affirm their value and contribution and their ability to carry on professionally without harming their family, it will foster their courage to continue.
In greetings, a women's status derives from that of her husband.  For example, if a woman is younger than you
but her husband is older or more senior in position then you would greet her in Lao by using the term "older
Time and Space
Apart from arriving and departing on time, Lao don't tend to be as preoccupied as Westerners with "efficient" use of time.   Appointments may be delayed or not kept at all and this is acceptable in the Lao culture.  Friends
may drop by without previous arrangements (out of consideration since then the host does not have to make elaborate arrangements).  You will receive last minute dinner or wedding invitations.
In the West, we tend to focus on productivity in the work place.  We expect everything to be done now or
yesterday.  Most of our places of employment have an appraisal system based on individual goals and achievements.  Western workers usually have the authority, the information, and the tools to get things done efficiently.
In the Lao PDR, while productivity and output are not ignored, they usually take a back seat to harmony, the
process by which goals are achieved.  Mid-level employees rarely have the authority to make decisions.  Jobs tend to be very narrowly defined, and it is often difficult to find the one person who knows how to perform a certain task.  Interruptions are common, and you are expected to deal with each request as it comes up.  A long lunch hour and nap are part of the work day.  Official government work hours provide for a two hour
lunch and nap period.
Time usage is a potential source of frustration for both partners.  Lao people believe Westerners are obsessed with scheduling every minute of the work day, as for example, in the billing systems of Western lawyers where even a 5 minute phone call with a client is recorded and billed.  To many Lao, Westerners don't take enough care when introducing sensitive or important matters.  We pursue our goals too vigorously and directly.  Lao, accustomed to dealing with Westerners, are well aware of this tendency and will counsel you from time to time with a good Lao proverb.  At the same time, it should be reiterated that many Westerners are perplexed by why it takes so much time to get things done in the Lao PDR.
Lao tend to keep more physical distance from each other than Westerners.  You will know you are too close if
you see your Lao colleague backing off to a more comfortable distance.  However, if comfortable with you, Lao
will touch you a lot, especially among women.
Touching someone's head (or even taking a book from the shelf over someone's head) should be avoided.  If
done, an immediate apology should be made.
At the workplace, receptions or official functions like opening and closing ceremonies of workshops it may be
acceptable to shake hands among the men, but not on a daily basis in the office.  A simple sabaidi is usually
sufficient greeting upon arrival at the office.
Seating arrangements at meetings or dinners can be difficult to figure out.  It's best to wait to be seated by your host or whomever seems to be in charge of seating arrangements.
Seating arrangements in vehicles can be another mystery.   Generally speaking, important people sit in the back seat and subordinates in the front.  However, there may be exceptions where the front seat is offered to the
foreigner so as to allow a better view of the scenery if one is out in the countryside.   Or the senior Lao may wish to take the front seat so as to give directions to the driver.
Learning Styles
Although learning styles differ from one individual to the next, most Lao people have been exposed to an
education system which gives greater priority to memorising information than self expression or analytical skills.
The learning style can be traced back to the Buddhist temple where monks chant prayers in the ancient language (Pali) while people listen attentively.  Learning tends to be seen as more of a ceremony than an activity directed toward achieving a result.  A key learning objective is to be able to state information and theories or quote authoritative texts, rather than think critically about a subject.  When making presentations, Westerners should be brief and to the point, packaging key points in concise formulas which can be recalled. Where at all possible, culturally appropriate examples should be used to illustrate a point.
Lao respond well to modern training techniques such as small group discussions, presentations among themselves and brainstorming provided they feel comfortable and this means only if they have become
acquainted with each other.  It is useful to have some games or exercises at the outset to help make acquaintances among participants and with yourself.  In addition to the traditional Lao closing dinner, it is useful to have an opening cocktail or lunch to help make acquaintances and put participants at ease.
Lao practice is to take notes assiduously during training often without discriminating between the important and the unimportant.  This habit can actually detract from actual learning and discussion.  You may instruct them only to write down what you have written down on the board or you may tell them you will be distributing a summary of your presentation afterwards so there is no need to take notes.
You are best to vary teaching techniques so as to break up the traditional lecture approach and note taking. Breaking the class up into discussion groups or problem-solving with work material distributed beforehand is always useful.   If possible, all hand-outs should be bilingual Lao and English.


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