Cambodia 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
General speaking you can ask about family and work. Instead of asking where someone is from (strange, since this question is for foreigners), you can ask where he or she are going or coming. This is a standard question.
Greetings in Cambodia depend on levels of respect. It is important in the family environment to be more respectful to elders (grandparents) and to people who are older than you. The older the person, the more respect they are given. At work, the highest respect would be for your boss/president or manager and you would greet anyone below them afterwards. At temple or a ceremonial place, the monks and priests would receive the highest level of respect.
When you first meet and greet someone at family or work occasions with the level of respect as described above, you must stand about half meter/ up to 1 foot away from the person and salute by placing both hands together palm in front of the chest with the fingers pointing upward. At a home or temple you need to take you shoes off as well. When greeting a monk, you need to salute them and then beg a spirit for help, or bow down to the floor and salute. When going to see the King the same rules apply.
Avoid using names at the first contact. In a family setting, use Lok Ta for a grandfather, Lok Yeiv for a grandmother and Om or Pou, depending on the age of the elder. For a person older than one year you would use Bang. At work you can use Lok or a person’s title, depending on the work environment. Make sure you bow your head a little bit when you see a person higher rank, as you would for an elder, a monk or a king). Ask them if they allow you to use their name; otherwise you will offend them by using it.
Using humor is ok. Touching, hugging, or kissing, especially for women or girls, is not. The only exception would be for children when first meeting them.
In any situation at work or family environment, try to ask any person of a higher level of respect at lease 3 times whether they accept your presence or not. In Canadian Culture "YES" means "YES"; "NO" means "NO", but not in Cambodian culture. Therefore, ask 3 times to get the true answer.
Talking about your family, work and home country are all very interesting to Cambodians. They, in turn, will talk quite happily about their own family members, especially their children, as well as work and where they are from. A lot of business is conducted in Phnom Penh but many people have moved there from smaller towns. They enjoy talking about places to visit in Cambodia, especially the famous city of Angkor which is a particular source of pride.
It can take some Cambodians, especially those not so used to working with foreigners, a bit of time to warm up to new people. Asking questions about their work, greeting them in Khmer and, most important of all, smiling, can help break the ice.
Launching into a discussion about the Khmer Rouge period (known as ’Pol Pot time’) would not be particularly prudent, although people do bring up the subject themselves once they get to know you. Many people are quite open about their experiences as it has affected most people over the age of 30, but it would not be good to ask about it outright. When you get to know people, you will hear some very moving and shocking stories and at this time, it’s best to keep quiet and listen. The other thing to be aware of is that the Khmer Rouge essentially disbanded and moved to the side. This means that you could very well end up working with or living near people who were members of the KR years ago. You may never know who is formerly KR or not so it’s better not to mention it. You could be stirring some painful memories, even for those who were on the ’bad’ side. This is likely the reason people always blame the atrocities on Pol Pot—it must be very difficult to think that your friends and neighbours may have been members of the organization that killed your family. As for humour, the Cambodians are quick to laugh and enjoy joking around quite a lot. On the other hand, sarcastic humour would not be understood.
Use greeting strategies as described in the previous question. Avoid using eye contact; this can be offensive. Use soft tone of voice, do not use too many gestures, and maintain a straight face. Stay at a distance as much as possible; to show politeness, don’t stand close (half mater minimum requirement).
Try not to ask direct questions, such as ’do you have wife or children?’ or ’how old is that person?’. Try to get acquainted first before asking private questions about the person’s name, education, hobbies or skills, preferences. Ask them what they want to drink or eat is normal.
Do not touch people. When someone comes to visit you at home, do not let that person see you in bedclothes or pajamas.
The most important thing to remember when greeting Cambodian people is that men and women never touch. Many people have become used to working with Westerners (especially in Phnom Penh) and it would be appropriate to shake hands with members of the opposite sex when you met them, if they made the first move. The general greeting is putting your hands together at chest height and bowing your head slightly to show respect which saying ’susaday’ which means ’good day’.
Eye contact is the norm. You would not touch someone when speaking to them. People tend to smile a lot so it’s good to adopt an open, friendly facial expression. Tone of voice should be serious and quiet. People can get quite loud at times, but not generally in business meetings.
Display of emotion
Showing affective emotion, reflecting with empathy, warmth and genuineness is appreciated.
Try to accept any offers of drinks, food or other things. This is a positive acceptance and later can build a positive relationship.
Calm yourself down if you are upset and don’t show when you are angry. Try to find family members or close friends to intercede when facing problems.
Laughing or joking and showing appreciation can be acceptable. Don’t get drunk; watch your boundaries and capacity limit.
Remember if they like you, they like you all your life. If they do not, they won’t want to talk to you ever.
No, people keep emotions in check. Those who tend to lose their tempers are not remembered fondly. You would never see a man and woman holding hands or kissing in public this is taboo. However, joviality is greatly appreciated and people socialize quite a lot and there is always a lot of laughter.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Generally, work starts at 6:30 am or 7 am. People work until about 11:30 am and they go for a lunch break, and then come back at around 1:30 pm or 2:00 pm.
Language nuances: try to speak slowly in a soft manner, avoid eye contact unless it is necessary.
Dress should be normal and clean (i.e. T-shirt for men); no requirement to have tie. What type of clothes you wear to work may depend on your financial resources. It is recommended that you wear local/traditional clothes when there will be celebrations or events.
Punctuality and deadlines are not really very important. Arriving late to work seems to be normal, or at least more than in Canada. Appointments are not required; people can drop by or come to see you without informing in advance. Be prepared to meet them at a moment’s notice. Absenteeism is not a big concern; you can be informed through friends if a colleague or employee will be absent, or person may not show up and he/she can tell you in the next day.
Dressing well is important. Cambodians are very well turned out at all times. It is a very hot country during part of the year and people will go home at lunchtime to take showers so they always seem to look fresh! Dress pants and shirts for men; dress pants, dresses or skirts and blouses for women. Cambodian women keep their hair neatly coiffed (and often dyed!) and tend to wear at least some lipstick. I suggest taking shoes that are easy to slip on and off as people take their shoes off before entering a house or even an office.
In our office, we were all on a first-name basis from the beginning, but when I had meetings outside, especially with people who were obviously important (hospital directors, ministry officials), I would always address them as Dr. ______ or Mr/Mrs _______ etc, even though they still addressed me by my first name. Our development workers addressed their supervisors more formally as well.
Cambodians are very punctual and being late for a meeting is not acceptable, unless you get stuck in a flood on the way over or something similar. Most people have cell phones and you would have to phone to tell them you were going to be late. Deadlines are not as adhered to.
Preferred managerial qualities
It is very important to obey the president/manager/boss or person who has highest title. The hierarchy is more important than agency policies. Call that person Lok (sir) or Mr etc. and show them respect at all times. You may also need to bow down your head a little bit when talking or agreeing (depending on the level of respect that is due).
Education and background are the second most important after the title/position. Show your competency, knowledge and wisdom in order to exchange your positive view from staff. Show flexibility and do not be too firm. Being open to new ideas or hardworking is normal. Try to be quiet and calm. You may talk or joke when there is a break time. Try to ask 3 times, if possible, to make sure they understand.
Show respect to women. It is not necessary to buy them flowers when attending a function; a gift is generally acceptable.
Education, experience and leadership skills are valued in managers, both local and expat. People appreciate someone with strong leadership skills who has experience managing people someone they could depend on for guidance and support. People greatly appreciate managers who make an effort to be friendly and are genuinely interested in them. Politeness and mutual respect are highly valued, as is warmth. People work hard but they do take the time to greet each other and ask how you are doing much more than is customary in Canada.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Rely on the president’s or manager’s decision rather than focusing on teamwork or policies. (You also can point out policies too.) "Title comes first". Is not that important to get the immediate answer from your supervisor. A great deal of importance is attached to who you know. Discussion in team environment is acceptable, but not necessary at a final decision stage. While structure/hierarchy can play important role, it is not important as long as you have a connection. Watch your step and you’re the limits of your authority.
Try to avoid letting conflicts go on. Work for your name not for your deed.
I worked for an International NGO so my situation may have been slightly different as decision processes are more participatory. Generally, I think, decisions are made by the top management and trickle down to the staff. Lower level staff don’t have usually have the opportunity to feed into decisions. Supervisors vary from place to place as they do in Canada, but many development workers find it difficult to get any sort of feedback from their employers and this is probably because employers are uncomfortable and unused to giving feedback.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Elder and older people play important role in the society: salute them first and give them priority of seat.
Women or girls should be respected at work or home. They are not allowed to touch, hug or kiss or sit with men (Eg. in the car, in a home) who are not their relatives. Some families are offended when the girls are asked to go out without their permission. Women or girls are required to be calm and soft mannered, and to stay home, do housework, cook, and obey their husband. Sometimes they are not allowed to sit and talk with a group of men.
Traditionally, men are the breadwinners in the family. They make all the decisions in the family. They have power or control over any issues in the families. Children are mostly the responsibility of the mother. Nevertheless, some women are in the workplace and today, more and more women can be found at the management level.
98 % of the people are Buddhist. The rest are generally Christian, Muslim, Hindu etc. When participating in religious events such as rituals or ceremonies etc. you must follow religious tradition (ask local people if you do not know) such as bowing while kneeling, removing shoes and hat, sitting on the floor. Try to avoid participating in negative events such as visiting a fortuneteller.
Cambodian society is divided, generally, into an unspoken class category: upper, middle and lower. Upper class usually is very sophisticated and places more emphasis on wealth that on education. Sometime, the upper class people can relate well with the middle class depending on their activities.
There are some minority groups in Cambodia besides the Khmer ethnic group. They are Thai, Vietnam, Muslim (Cham) and Chinese. The Khmer ethnic group dominates in the society. There appears to be elements of discrimination against other ethnic groups due to historical events. Each ethnic group follows its own tradition. If you want more information you may need to contact in each group or read local news. It is not considered very acceptable to marry someone from another ethnic member.
Note: Financial sources and powerful connections can have an impact and play an important role in the way in which gender, religion, class, and ethnicity factors impact on the workplace.
Still conservative regarding women’s roles but there are a large number of women in the workforce. However, women, especially poor, rural women, are greatly marginalized.
Most Cambodians are Buddhist with small Cham (Muslim) and Animist populations. People are very tolerant of other religions.
There is an emerging urban middle class, with its precursor having been destroyed by the KR. There is a huge gap between the ’haves’ and have nots’ which seems to be accepted.
Some tension between Khmer and Vietnamese population and between former KR and victims of the Pol Pot era. Still racism towards tribal minorities living in the Northeast.
There didn’t seem to be any tensions in our workplace based on the above factors, although there were both men and women from different areas of the country. Development workers in the Northeast did report serious tension between Khmer and the local smaller tribes and this affected their workplaces considerably.
Ask normal questions such as, ’how are you doing today?’, ’how is your family?’, ’how is business going?’. Try to be friendly and trustworthy as much as possible, watching carefully for other people’s comfort level. Asking to go out for coffee or breakfast is ok, but be careful asking someone to go out for date. Avoid losing face with someone from the workplace. Try not to mix private life and work.
Establishing a relationship with clients and colleagues is very important. Social events are a good way to get to know people. Offices have a lot of social gatherings to which clients are invited and this is a good way to establish a bit more of a personal relationship. Inviting clients and colleagues to lunch in particular can open a lot of doors, even if you don’t talk business during the lunch. People are happy to talk about their families, their homes and their work. When meeting with people for the first time, it is always appreciated if you take them out for lunch afterwards. I have to say that for me, it did make a significant difference in building relationships.
Privileges and favouritism
Colleagues or employees are of course expecting to receive special privileges. This depends on a personal relationship. Hiring friends and family relatives is very common in the workplace. Pay increases are acceptable, but not based on preference. If an employee has done a good job and people know that, it is ok to call that person to have lunch or supper at your home or in a restaurant giving him or her special privileges. Avoid being on a particular side in any team/or group in the work place. Try to show professional boundaries and do not limit your circle to close friends and their close relatives.
This does happen frequently amongst Khmer people but is not something that an expat would necessarily have to face.
Conflicts in the workplace
There do not appear to be general standard policies stating how to deal with a conflict at the work place. Based on cultural norms, dealing conflict in a direct way is difficult and is not recommended. The usual way of dealing with conflict is talking to a person indirectly through friends or family members or through senior employee or elder.
Some people, when they are in conflict or angry, will avoid you and expect you to come and talk to them first. Cambodians are not very open with their emotions and try to keep their anger inside rather than expressing it out loud. They expect people to understand their silent behavior. Some people look for religious help.
Very difficult. It is very hard to confront someone and it would be very uncomfortable for you both. Any issues would have to be brought up privately and in a very indirect manner. As a manager, it is okay to give feedback, but to a colleague, it’s not so easy. As an expat, you may never know if you have offended someone as their demeanor towards you may not change at all. However, some of my development workers (expats) found that if someone was offended by them, they would be completely ignored by others at work.
Motivating local colleagues
Financial reward can play well on a job performance. Maintaining good connections is second place. Establishing friendships also can help improve job performance. Job satisfaction, loyalty, and commitment seem to be very rarely found in the work place. This is perhaps due to economic conditions. Often, failure on the job can be fixed depended on who you know; your connections can help speak on your behalf if something goes wrong. Bribery and class preference appears to still exist in the work place. Given the existence of these social networks gossip would be imprudent. Also freedom of speech seems to not be recognized yet in the work place.
A good salary is a major factor in a country where so many people are greatly underpaid. Teachers and health workers take on extra work to make ends meet and will often leave their regular work part way through the day to go to their second job or private practice. When we compared government workers with NGO workers, we found that NGO workers, who were paid a decent salary and given a good working environment, were very committed to their jobs and worked above and beyond the call of duty. (I have rarely encountered such hardworking individuals.) Government workers, whose salaries could not even begin to pay for their living, were less committed to their jobs. Who could blame them?
Recommended books, films & foods
There are not too many books that describe in details about Cambodian culture. There will be lots of local kiosks, selling local and international newspapers. Not many films showing about culture; but you can watch TV to see daily activities once in Cambodia.
Most popular traditional dishes
"Sam-Lar-Kirie"; "Nhom-Ban-Chok" and noodles.
Most popular song
By the artist named, Sin-Si-Sa-muth.
Written by Krom-Nvou. He tells more about cultural character of Cambodian people.
The film ’The Killing Fields’ is a gripping and realistic look at the life of two journalists, one American, one Cambodian, during the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of Phnom Penh in 1975.
Angkor by Dawn Rooney (fantastic descriptions with photos of the ancient temple cities); A History of Cambodia, Voices from S-21and Brother Number One: A Biography of Pol Pot by David Chandler; and Red Lights and Green Lizards—an account of two VSO volunteers two years working in Cambodia in the early 1990’s.
I recommend Fish amok—an exquisite wet curry made with fresh grated coconut and coriander. There is nothing more simple or delicious.
For more information on "Cultural Interpreter" you can visit Sala-Vichet-Sel-Lapak or Sala- Rach-Cha-Na in Phnom-Penh city. There are local stores that sell foreign products. Ask local people.
Try to watch traditional dance, such as Ro-Bum-Upsara. It would describe about people’s attitude. (ask Sala- Rach-Cha-Na when there will be a show).
If you are in Phnom Penh, the opportunities to learn about the culture are unlimited. There are museums and festivals, restaurants and cultural events. In PP, start with the National Museum which takes you through the periods of history of the Angkor kings. There is also the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom, the biggest temple in Phnom Penh. Any Buddhist Wat would be a good place to visit. Wat Lanka, the oldest temple in PP, often has exhibits. Make sure you observe the Water Festival in PP when local people build long dragon boats and race up and down the Sap River, usually in the king and queen’s presence. At the university during the rainy season, you can go and watch traditional Cambodian dance and hear traditional music for less than a dollar.
There are many small restaurants to choose from—my favourite was Boat Noodle where you can get a big steaming bowl of noodles for about $2.
On Sundays, everybody goes out together for picnics and walks—families crowd along the riverfront and there are lots of food sellers to tempt you. I think all of the staff parties in my workplace involved a picnic somewhere—either at the top of a mountain in Kirirom National Park (which may remind you a bit of Canada) or on a boat on the Mekong. People also love to go to the beach and Kompong Som, Cambodia’s only beach town, is very busy on Sundays and holidays.
The Cambodian Daily is the daily English language newspaper. The Phnom Penh Post is published weekly. You can find quite a lot of activities in these papers. There are Khmer language cinemas with Chinese martial arts films dubbed into Khmer. But the most popular activity, which must not be missed, is karaoke. Cambodians love to sing and don’t seem shy about doing so in front of a whole restaurant of people. There are different types of karaoke joints but the less shady ones (ie don’t double as brothels), are also restaurants where people sit around tables and take turns singing. Khmer people tend to sing in Khmer, of course, but if you are with them, they will offer you a karaoke menu of such goodies as ’Take me Home, Country Roads’ and ’Like a Virgin’ by Madonna. Enjoy!
The Alliance Francaise is a good place to access films about earlier days in Cambodia: before the Khmer Rouge when Phnom Penh was the envy of all Southeast Asia.
Due to the civil war in Cambodia and the destruction that occurred under Pol Pot, historical books or files have disappeared. You can try the Central library.
Lots of emphasis on the great Angkorian empire and its kings. The present King, Sihanouk, is well-loved—he has survived all of the political upheavals over the past 30 years very well.
Shared historical events with Canada
There are no specific historical events between Cambodia and Canada. Canada is known for a being a peacemaking country. Canada is known to Cambodian people for the anti-landmine campaign.
There is no specific stereotypical view about Canadians from local people that might be harmful to effective relations. Local people may view Canadians /or Canada in terms of development assistance.
All I really knew about Cambodians before I went to Cambodia and did my research beforehand was that they had been through a terrible time with the Khmer Rouge. I’m not sure that Canadians have many stereotypes of Cambodians except that a lot of people think that Cambodia is a dangerous place. It is true that there are lots of guns about but it is a very safe place if one is careful.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Cambodia, the youngest son of 11 children. He was raised in Phnom-Penh, the capital city, until the age of 17 and then moved to Bulgaria to continue his studies. He graduated with an Education degree from the University of Sofia-Kliment Ochritski and worked and lived in a number of countries in Eastern Europe before immigrating to Canada to live and study in Quebec in Trois Rivières. He is currently living in Chestermere, Alberta and working at Calgary Immigrant Aid Society. He also studies part-time at University of Calgary. He is married and has two children. Your cultural interpreter is Khmer, from the majority ethnic group in Cambodia.
Your cultural interpreter was born in the UK, the oldest of two children. She was raised in Derby in the UK until the age of 11 when she and her family immigrated to Canada. She spent the rest of her growing up years in Kincardine, Ontario. She studied French and History in Toronto at Glendon College, part of York University and at the Université de Grenoble in France. She later continued her studies in Ottawa in Education and became a teacher. Her work sent her to Namibia in 1994 where she taught English to secondary school students and training methodology to English teachers. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter returned to Ottawa to work for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and went to Cambodia in 2001, where she lived for six months, working as a Program Officer for VSO. She is currently living in Ottawa where she continues to work in international development as a recruiter and trainer of volunteers. She is a volunteer with the Catholic Immigration Centre.
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.
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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.