Working with a Lao Partner
How it differs from Working with a Western Partner
A word about Lao culture.  This guide speaks to the Lao culture.  Remember, the Lao are the major grouping
and they dominate senior positions in the society but they are less than half the population.  The many other ethnic groups have a culture which may be related to and influenced by the Lao but is distinct from Lao culture. Be careful to distinguish the different ethnic groups in your dealings.  Each ethnic group is proud of its identity and should be identified and dealt with as such.  It is important to find out whether your partner is Lao or some other ethnic grouping and to deal with them as such.  To appreciate the sensitivity, imagine a foreigner in the United Kingdom dealing with a Welsh person and referring to him as English.  The partnership would not advance very far!
Lao culture is complex, extremely sophisticated in some regards, and is blessed with enduring traditions,
customs, and systems.  There are pros and cons to Lao and Western methods: skills are inevitably transferred two ways.  As a foreigner with years of training and experience, you may arrive in the Lao PDR confident in your
abilities and determined to pass them on to your new colleagues.  However, if you are sensitive to your new
environment, and take the time to observe and learn, you will discover that no expertise, regardless of how well it worked at home, can be transferred unaltered in a new cultural environment.
The most successful foreigners are those who believe they have as much or more to learn from the Lao way than they have to pass on.  The Lao people can sense the foreigner's attitude immediately and either "turn-on" or "turn-off" at a very early stage.  There is nothing mysterious about this.   If Lao people came to your country with the attitude that they must instruct you about how to do things, how likely are they to succeed?
Skills and knowledge, if they are to be transferred, must be useful and must be adapted to Lao needs and
contexts.  Nothing will be gained by technical advisors or business persons adopting the attitude that their way is the only way a job can be done.  In fact, such inflexibility will likely cause resentment and hinder trust and cooperation on which strong partnerships are based.
To understand how the Lao might feel about your role in their country, you might imagine how you would react
if the roles were reversed.  Lao methods and systems have been developed in the context of a collectivist,
hierarchical society quite opposite to that of Westem countries which are generally pluralistic and individualistic.
As a foreign business person or technical advisor, you will certainly feel you have a contribution to make.  But
this may not bring immediate appreciation from your Lao partner.  This appreciation must be earned and it can be a long hard road to do so.  You will have more prospects for success if you adapt your methods and approach to the Lao reality.
Cross-cultural experiences may best be enjoyed through relationships with Lao people.  They will generally be as
close as you are prepared to be with them.  Understand that there may be official constraints and limitations for
senior government officials which may limit your relationship with these individuals.
Officially, Westerners are perceived as a possible threat, a potential source of "spiritual pollution" leading to moral decadence.   This attitude sometimes restricts contact between Lao people and foreigners.   In your office or work place, you may develop a very good rapport with your Lao colleagues.  Establishing friendships or personal relationships depends on a number of factors, the most important being your demonstrated interest in wishing to make friends.  The Lao are some of the most warm and welcoming people anywhere.  For every effort you make toward friendship you will be more than compensated.
Recognise that culture determines attitudes and values.   The way we perceive ourselves, our social roles and
obligations, and the way we define and tackle problems is shaped by our own experience.   If we recognise this, we are less likely to judge behaviour by Western standards and values.  We can then develop strategies sensitive to the cultural context.   If you understand at least some of the values and motivations of your partners, you are more likely to succeed.  To begin with, you may consider questioning some of your own cultural values.  For example, why do we value work so highly and how does this shape our perspective?
Applying individual traits to a whole nation can be misleading and descend into racial stereotyping.  But describing cultural characteristics with care and consideration can provide a framework for understanding common values and beliefs, for example, the avoidance of conflict or confrontation in Lao society.


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