Bangladesh cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
Bangladeshis always have positive and welcome attitude towards foreigner and openness to Hospitality.
Establishment of personal relationship by one-to-one basis is important. Better to avoid the questions regarding profession, income and family background.
It is better to avoid satire and have patience to listening and appreciations without any possible counter point.
The family is the most important topic for people in Bangladesh/India alike. Many people still have parents in the village, so that is also often a point of discussion (i.e. which village, do they continue to farm, how many brothers and sisters do you have, etc..)
An offensive subject would be anything that strikes at their national pride. Also people have religious sentiments so discussions on religion are best avoided until one is versed in those sensitivities. Also people consider respect to elders very important, so any remark criticising an older person should be avoided. Since personal relations are essential for getting anything done, it is therefore important to avoid anything that is considered "disrespectful".
Humour is something that varies from culture to culture. In Bangladesh, humour is related to the victory of the small guy or villager over the big guy or urbanite, a kind of "Newfie joke" in reverse.
It is not necessary to maintain a distance when speaking to someone. Though shake hand is not customary but very much appreciable especially when a foreigner does it. Normally shaking hands with a male, using the contemporary expression of goodwill, i.e. "hallo, how are you?" "good morning" "good evening" etc is appreciated. But avoid shaking hands with a female.
Eye contact is not unacceptable whether male or female. It is important to note that the female in Bangladesh normally shy to have an eye contact with male at the first meeting. And also according to custom it is considered impolite. But this situation is mostly in rural areas. Touching someone when speaking is not common unless the relationship is become more close but this is not acceptable in case of female.
Politeness and courteousness are desirable and prevail among Bangladeshis.
Facial expression: is an important factor, the expression should be as normal as possible because Bangladeshis by nature are prow to the proverb "face is the index of mind".
Tone of voice and directness: Bangladeshis by nature are soft spoken and dislike loudness and highness of expression. And directness may pose insult, therefore better to avoid.
Gestures: There are some gestures that are considered rude in Bangladesh such as showing thumb in an upward way or blinking your eyes.
In the local greetings ("nomoscar", "salam-ali-kum-salam"), people do not shake hands. Either they fold their hands or touch their forehead. Touching is not appreciated because of the Brahmincal belief that there are impurities/lack of cleanliness among low caste communities. (In many cases a low-caste person cannot hand you a glass of water, rather they put it down in front of you for no contact is possible.) Generally in this regard Bangladesh is better than India in so far as it is less caste-ridden, however they do ultimately come from they same Hindustani culture so it gets expressed.
Young people have to show respect to older people by touching their feet. Women (wives) have to do this to men (husbands) generally. In the case of Canadians they are not expected to follow this, however this does not mean approaching such formalities by being too casual.
Eye contact is not a problem except for women who are walking down a street. By giving eye contact, they tend to get attention from young vendors or other males.
There is no problem with facial expressions or gestures. Rather generally people relate in an emotional way so they like this. Directness is not appreciated however. It is important to be delicate and say things in a non-forthright way otherwise it leads to misunderstanding.
Display of emotion
Expression and display of affection in public as well as emotions is acceptable because these acknowledge the sentiment of a Bangladeshi. Expression of anger in public might create violence. This is true throughout Bangladesh.
Public displays of affection, anger or other emotions are not appropriate as people generally are very formal with each other. When you are in a position of authority you must act like a father or mother. This means that you need to hear many things patiently before reacting. If you working under someone, that means that you should act like a younger sister/brother or a daughter/son. Those who are less in age cannot act emotionally with their seniors.
Dress, punctuality & formality
There is no such dress code unless specially mentioned. Normally decent and clean dresses are used. In case of female, use of local dress like "salawer and kamij" are appreciated and wearing any kinds of short dresses should be avoided.
Normally the colleagues and supervisors are addressed more casually / by names (irrespective of gender).
Usually Bangladeshis are reluctant to meet the deadlines, punctuality etc. It is advisable to monitor the timeframe/progress of any product.
Dress needs to be conservative. The local dress is most appreciated. Addressing colleagues and supervisors should be formal. Using surname with "ji" on the end awards respect. Timings are important. Stressing this and ensuring adherence to timings is important.
Preferred managerial qualities
Whilst Bangladesh is still a very young country (true independence was only gained in 1972), it has a recognized long-standing tradition of culture, writing and poetic excellence. Hence local managers/staff welcome an expatriate who can present his/her recommendations in an "educated, firm and pleasant manner". They do not like being talked down to.
Qualities such as education, experience, leadership etc., especially, are essential. Being qualified and skilled is also important. Staff may show acceptance of the non-local (Expat) manager/supervisor by taking notes and/or expressing praise and acceptance of his/her opinion.
Bangladeshis and Indians are looking for a father/mother figure that offers guidance and protection. This is the basic concept of leadership in South Asia. They are also looking for someone who appreciates their culture and language. So speaking a few words of the local language is often more important than other attributes. It is perceived by people that those who have high levels of educational qualification or much experience are able to move people inside and outside the government/ private sector and get things done. In some ways this is viewed as more important than hard working or open to new ideas.
A manager/supervisor who is not local is expected to have a special concern for staff and staff problems as they do not come from any societal group. People from countries like Canada who come to Bangladesh and try to flatten hierarchies to get people to take on more decentralized decision making and management realize that it is a long term process that is best approached in stages. One needs to have a strong authority so as to meet staff expectations and through this management techniques can be brought into play slowly.
People express dissent in very indirect ways. Expats need to be conscious that people are unlikely to express their dislike or objection directly out of fear of losing their position or employment.
Therefore you will know how different staff persons view you by the inputs of colleagues. One of the techniques is to hold regular meetings for people to air grievances. In such a manner people can express dissent without fear of losing their job, and through this process one can build a strong team.
Hierarchy and decision-making
There is a distinct management hierarchy in most Bangladesh organizations, hence the need for expatriate managers to respect such structures. Considerable "loss of face" can often result when expatriates seek to break the system. Of course, Bangladeshis are "open to change, but it is how one goes about it that counts".
The decisions are always taken by the competent authority namely Head of Department, Head of the Institution etc. In case of Ministries of Government, the decisions depend on the type of proposal/issues. It starts from the level of Deputy Secretary up to Minister. In some case of special issues, the Prime Minister is the decision maker.
For immediate answer and feedback a supervisor is sufficient.
Leaders with authority usually take decisions. (See comments in question 5) On the whole, the few efforts aimed at decentralizing decision-making in the management structures are usually found in the private sector and not in the public sector. There have been attempts by expatriate organizations using various techniques. Within highly hierarchical structures, there is a greater attentiveness to procedure than to ideas. It is necessary to get permission/answers from one’s supervisor.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
The socio-economic, political and legal status of women and girls in Bangladesh is significantly lower than that of men and boys, resulting from a combination of complex factors governing gender relations in public and private life. The consequences and also causes of women’s low status are high level of poverty, illiteracy, poor health, lack of marketable skills, unemployment, and a general lack of access to social and economical opportunities to participate in the development process of the society.
Gender discrimination continues to be a major concern in Bangladesh despite government efforts to provide gender equality for women and girls. Discrimination against women occurs as a result of such customs as the law of inheritance, in which a daughter is entitled to only half the son’s share of his father’s estate, child marriage and associated dowries despite being illegal and unconstitutional. Cases of violence against women, which arise from dowry demands, are often delayed and laws difficult to enforce.
Though they constitute half of the total population, they are very much invisible in all sphere of life. They have poor participation in public life. But the scenario has started to change from last decade. To fulfill the commitment nationally and internationally, the Government of Bangladesh has taken various significant and specific steps in different sectors for mainstreaming gender equality. Such as in the areas of national policy, women in decision-making, political participation of women, women in law, women’s human rights, women and media, violence against women, women and the environment, girl child, birth registration, women and education, women and health etc.
In Bangladesh, religion is quite openly practiced but not fanatic. It is advisable not to talk about religion.
From income point of view it can be classified wealthy, rich, well to do (middle class) and below poverty level.
Ethnicity is not a prominent factor in Bangladesh.
The local culture is diverse and not homogenous. Therefore there is a growing appreciation for gender in the public sector (both expressed in terms of women’s special needs and in terms of equity issues). Middle class advocates for gender are very out spoken in Bangladesh but they are not representative of all sections of the middle class. There is a perceptible shift among middle class women in cities and in rural areas towards wearing "the veil", staying in houses due to personal insecurity and the lack of public safety. This reduces women’s spatial mobility. The impact on the work place is that it is still highly patriarchal and efforts need to made to use a gender perspective in every workplace. Also increasing the number of women in professional jobs is important for role modelling.
There are strong religious sentiments in Bangladesh. At one level there is a hindu sub-culture, that is part of the traditional social formation. On top of this, there is a Muslim tradition. There is also a division in the society between those that want more religion and those that want less. This corresponds to parties of Jamati and BNP on the one hand, and the Avami League on the other. This is influenced by the fact that there are 8% Hindus, 2% Buddhist and 2-3% Christian population. Roughly 88% is Muslim, the majority are Sunni. The impact on the workplace is that people need to practice their religion.
Efforts at the workplace to accommodate the religious sentiments are important. Also consideration has to be given to festival days.
Basically most of the people in Bangladesh are poor (low class). There is a status quo that controls the decision-making mostly from middle class living in Dhaka and Chittagong. Then there is a small group of rich (high class).
The impact on the work place is that higher-class people with education usually work with expatriates. One has to be discerning that this group of people have minimal concern for the poor and maximum concern for their mobility. The tremendous quantum of aid that has come to Bangladesh has exacerbated these existing inequities.
This has a big effect on the work place. Creating concern for beneficiaries must be encouraged but the middle classes do not generally represent them.
Bangladeshi’s are proud of their culture and heritage as seen through the language movement, and the liberation struggle.
In terms of the work place, it is extremely important to provide people with a sense that you support them as Bangladeshis
In Bangladesh to establish a personal relationship is an important factor and essential. Normally in Bangladeshi culture straight business talk is not a practice. Prior to business talk an environment/ atmosphere needs to be created through identifying a close friend of a person for a better introduction or an informal get together in a restaurant or shopping place etc.
In Bangladesh it is quite possible for an expatriate to develop a business relationship relatively quickly provided he/she does not adopt a "dominant, know-all approach" from the outset. Bangladeshis tend to be wary of those expatriates who try to push strong opinions indicative of a belief their customs and methods of doing business are distinctly superior to those of Bangladeshis.
Personal relationship is the basis of how things get done in Bangladesh/India. Taking an interest in their family matters, giving importance to the colleague or client, indulging in small talk is the best way to build trust and to get the person to relax. One of the ways of establishing relationship is helping the colleague/client to get material on Canadian Universities for a nephew/brother/friend; another way is to help pass a message to a relative while in Canada. Many people feel that by showing too much interest may lead to corruption. There is a need to know where to draw the line.
Privileges and favouritism
Preferred treatment, pay increase, hiring of his/her friends or family are all important.
Colleagues or employees would expect special privileges or considerations as a reward for working faithfully and carrying out the work keeping in mind your expectations. There is a need to lay out clearly the job duties and to link privileges with it. This may involve helping the person or family members with access or contacts.
Conflicts in the workplace
Bangladeshis do not like "open workplace confrontation", where considerable ’loss of face’ can result if an expatriate manager is directly involved. Confrontational and delicate workplace issues should be preferably being addressed at a "one on one" level and privately. Direct rejection to any proposal or opinion would pose a problem.
It is important not to react too quickly. There is tremendous gossip that will go on in any office setting. Often times the problem will get sorted out on its own. If the problem persists, discussing it with the said person is important. It is not appropriate to share it publicly because people are highly sensitive to public criticism.
Motivating local colleagues
Of job satisfaction, commitment, money, loyalty, good working conditions, fear of failure, etc.), most are applicable, excluding fear of failure. Acquiring confidence and trust is the top source of motivation.
Work in such a manner as to give people dignity
Set up a structured methods whereby people can have a sense of their own progress
Giving economic benefits for work well done etc. (increased salaries/bonuses)
Sense of backing from the authority figure (Loyalty)
Recommended books, films & foods
Three excellent books any Canadian visiting Bangladesh for the first time should consider reading:
- Bangladesh - Reflections on the Water, 1993. James J. Novak. ISBN 0-253-34121-3 (Excellent overall book about Bangladesh covering history, politics, culture etc.
- Women and Islam in Bangladesh. 2000. Taj I. Hashmi. ISBN 0-312-22219-X.
- Banker to the Poor. 1998. Muhammad Yunus & Alan Jolis. ISBN 984-05-1467-9.
Moreover, a number of publications are available in the book stores, public libraries and even with Canadian High Commission and UN Agencies, as well as with NGOs such as BRAC, Proshika, Carika, Caritas, and Ahshania Mission etc.
Freedom at Midnight — Jawahar Lal Nehru; City of Joy — Dominique LaPierre; Readings on Sufi saints
Gandhi (Richard Attenborough); Satyajit Raj — Trilogy; Hindi Films; Bengali Films
There are number of English dailies as well as weeklies. Watching television and sport evens are helpful to understand the local culture. To attend some of the National events are also recommended.
The best way to identify a cultural interpreter is within colleagues.
Places to visit
Foods to eat
Musical performances; Dance performances; Cricket game; Hindi films
National heroes vary from events to events. In cultural field, there are cultural heroes like leading musicians, artists, dramatists etc. In education, leading writers/poets, in sports leading players and sports men /women.
In Bangladesh, the martyrs in the language movement of 1952 and politicians like Fajlul Haque, Shuharday, Sheikh Mujib, Ziaur Rahman, Vasani etc. created a great impact on country’s national heroes mainly because of their contribution for greater national causes.
These are changing with the different ruling parties. Sheikh Mujib has been respected as the "Founding Father" and Begum Rokeya is known for her tremendous work for women.
Shared historical events with Canada
Normally relations between the two countries are harmonious.
There are not many shared historical events. The one tie is through the large numbers of Bangladesh is residing in Canada.
By nature Bangladeshis are very friendly and hospitable towards foreigners; particularly Canadians because of their friendly and harmless relations towards Bangladesh.
There are many cynics who think all Bangladesh’s are corrupt etc. It is true that there is the pressure of poverty facing many people and they manipulate situations for survival. One has to be cautious.
About the cultural interpreters
Your Cultural Interpreter was born in Rangpur the third child of six children. She was raised in this town in the northern part of Bangladesh until the age of 20 and then moved to Dhaka city to continue her studies and job search. She graduated with Economics and Political Science and obtained masters (MA) degree on Political Science from the University of Rajshahi. Later she got her Diploma on Management and Leadership from the University of Philippines Las Banos (UPLB). Your Interpreter is a well-known social and gender activist in Bangladesh. She has 23 years of integrated program/project management experiences in a wide variety of fields. Afterwards, your Cultural Interpreter immigrated to Canada to live. She is currently living at Ottawa and working with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and other international development agencies as an individual consultant.
Your Cultural Interpreter was born in Montreal, the third of the fourth children and was raised in the city of Toronto. She studied International Relations in New York at the University of Colombia. Her work sent her abroad for the first time to Senegal, Africa in 1984. Afterwards she lived in India, Bangladesh and Philippines. She has traveled extensively and has 16 years of overseas experience on environment, gender and development. She has been living in South India for the last two years where she works as a convener of an NGO. She has one child. Your Cultural Interpreter is of British/Georgian /Ex-Soviet Union origin.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.