Kyrgyzstan 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
The Kyrgyzstanis (I deliberately use Kyrgyzstanis rather than Kyrgyz, because Kyrgyz indicates the titular ethnic group and there are many ethnic groups living in Kyrgyzstan) like to talk about family, work, where you are from and about life in your country. They like humour. I do not think there is any issue that may particularly offend people. People are free to talk about politics, religion and other sensitive matters.
It is possible that a Canadian may be invited to a house of a local family as a guest. Local people are known for their hospitality. People usually remove their shoes when they come to guests at the entrance, but it is best to check with the hosts about this. In rural houses, people may sit on the floor around a cloth for food called “dastorkon”. Dastorkon is considered to be holy and people do not step and walk on it whether there is food on it or not. People also cook much food and want guests to eat as much as possible, and sometimes several courses are served, which can be quite difficult for a guest to refuse. The most respectable guest (usually according to one's age or seniority) sits in “tyor”, a place furthest from the door. He or she is served tea and food first. The host, or more often hostess, sits close to door and pours tea and passes food to everyone. People generally talk about life and other relaxing themes over food. Alcohol is also served in many cases.
Learning a local language (Kyrgyz), or even some basic elements of it is a great bonus for a Canadian, because the Kyrgyz are fascinated to hear foreigners speak their language. This makes a Canadian accepted and respected.
Kyrgyz people are very family oriented so normal questions about their families and about your own family would be appropriate. They are also very proud of their country, particularly of its natural beauty, so comment on that or ask about possible sights to visit.
I would not ask about politics or religion initially. Also at first I would avoid discussion of the ‘Soviet Times', the common local term for the years before 1991. Those times are often seen as better times. Many people were considerably better off, education was free on all levels, and there was little abject poverty. Now unemployment is very high and many people survive on an extremely minimal income level. It is difficult to appreciate the value of free speech when you have no bread for your children.
In daily life Kyrgyz people have a lovely warm sense of humour, but sarcasm is inappropriate.
The Kyrgyzstanis mostly stand close and keep eye contact while talking to each other. Some people use a lot of gestures. Touching and patting are also quite common among men who know each other well. It is best to carefully watch how the people feel about distance, touching and gestures. However, many Kyrgyzstanis may be curious to know much about foreigners because during Soviet rule, very few foreigners visited the country. There is far less privacy in Kyrgyzstan than in Canada and a Canadian maybe should expect to be asked questions about one's marital status, salary, etc. Some foreigners may feel overwhelmed by too much attention from local people and that their privacy sometimes may be violated. However, people generally try to read the foreigners' signals about their comfort regarding these issues.
People greet each other when they come to work every day. It is common that men shake hands with other men, while men and women give each other a kiss on each cheek. It is also customary to ask about one's health, family, and professional matters (e.g. work or studies) as a sign of courtesy.
There are some gestures that may be offensive. For example, pointing at someone, showing a firmly held fist to someone (as an indicator of provoking to fight), and because of foreign movies' influence the “middle finger” is also offensive. Some Kyrgyzstanis do not use a lot of hand gestures, while others do, and there are no set rules. There are some habits that a foreigner needs to be aware, for example, it is normally not offensive in Kyrgyzstan for people to burp in public, but breaking wind in front of people is very offensive.
An acceptable distance between people is very similar to Canada – about 80-100 cm. You should definitely make eye contact with both men and women. This may vary if you are talking to someone of the opposite sex who is traditional Muslim (relatively few, mostly in the South of the country). The primary form of touching someone else is by shaking hands when you first meet. After that it is usually not done on a regular basis; I would also be hesitant about shaking hands across sexes, wait for them to initiate. As you get to know the people you work with and see on a regular basis, the women may exchange hugs or kisses at times but I would let them initiate. Men usually simply shake hands. As in other traditional Muslim cultures it is not proper to eat or offer food with your left hand but as most people are either not traditional Muslim or Russian Orthodox, or ‘not religious', this doesn't seem of high importance. They do however, often say a few words of prayer at the beginning and end of a meal, followed by a simple gesture of opening the hands (to receive gods blessing) and then bringing them together and down along with a bow of the head. This hand gesture is also often used when passing one of the many mausolea along the roadside – this can be slightly unnerving when the driver of the car who is busy navigating the potholed roads does it.
If you are working through an interpreter, your facial expressions are very important and it is necessary to speak very directly and clearly. They are very generous, warm and eager to please visitors and it is often only through facial expressions and gestures that you can show them appreciation.
If you are invited to someone's home, it is appropriate to bring a small gift, perhaps a cake, a bottle of wine, fruit and some small thing for the children. Whenever you enter someone's house they will at least offer you tea and usually bread and jam and it is considered rude to deny this hospitality. If you are invited to share a meal be prepared for a long series of toasts accompanied by short speeches; as the guest of honour you will be asked to make the first toast. Topics for the speeches are usually thanks to your host, to the other guests and to world peace. You may want to go easy on how much vodka you down with each toast as that will set the pace for everyone else and all the following toasts.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection, anger or other emotions are not uncommon. But the degree of expression of emotion and acceptance may vary from person to person and from place to place (e.g., urban vs. rural context). For example, in urban areas, young people can be seen showing a lot of affection towards each other (one may observe couples cuddling in public spaces such as parks), while in rural areas people tend to be more reserved. Expression of anger is not considered normal, though many people may get involved in it (primarily because of poor living conditions, economic difficulties).
Kyrgyz people tend to be fairly reserved about their emotions. They are warm and giving and children are hugged and cuddled but otherwise not much display of emotion in public.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Work styles, pace and punctuality differ between workplaces. However, people usually wear clean, neat, formal dress. Men may wear suit and tie, while women wear formal dress. However, many offices that have foreign workers are used to their dressing quite causally. T-shirts and jeans are not usually worn to offices, and especially if women wear t-shirts, jeans or shorts to the office, they may stand out.
People dress up for special occasions. For example; meetings, parties, colleagues' weddings or birthdays.
First name alone is suitable for addressing those who are the same age or younger. Supervisors or seniors are often addressed formally by their first names added with their patronymic names as Russian style. For example, Asan Bolotovich and Ainura Maratovna (respectively, Bolot's son and Marat's daughter). Alternatively, some people may address elders adding “baike” or “ake” (elder brother in the north and south of Kyrgyzstan respectively) for senior male colleague and “edje” (elder sister for both north and south Kyrgyzstan) for senior female colleague. People rarely use the last name of the person unless it is very official occasion or when they are introducing a person formally. However, it is best to observe how others address the supervisors and confirm with the person himself or herself how he or she would like to be addressed.
Many workplaces follow more strict codes for punctuality and reliability. Those who are punctual and reliable are highly valued by their bosses and colleagues.
Deadlines are set and people usually try to meet them. However, there is often some flexibility and people negotiate when the deadline is not likely to be met. Those people who meet deadlines are highly valued.
Generally, people in the cities (particularly Bishkek) dress quite formally for work. Jeans are worn only for leisure activities by both men and women. Most business men wear suits or sports jackets and slacks and ties. The women wear suits and dresses; if they wear slacks they are dressy and often coordinated with a jacket or top. Given the limited spaces and facilities in which they live and how poor they are, I am always impressed by how neat and well-dressed they manage to be. In the villages they may dress slightly less formally but still neat.
In public, the Kyrgyz people are fairly quiet and perhaps reserved. I was told not to be out alone after dark in Bishkek, but I never saw or heard evidence of violence. In the village, where I was surrounded by children of all ages, I never heard any fighting or crying.
Usually, people use first names in social and work settings but often they will address you as Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so if you are either an honoured guest, a foreigner or an older person, particularly across genders.
The people with whom I have worked were extremely hard workers and generally speaking very productively. My impression is that this may vary for bureaucrats, custom officials, police, etc. They may have a vested interest in not working too fast or too efficiently in order to make sure their jobs are protected.
Preferred managerial qualities
People value, both in local and non-local bosses, such qualities as competency, professionalism, education, fairness, openness to new ideas, leadership and hard work. However, it also depends on the organization. Some organizations are authoritarian and hierarchical and they have strict bosses. People in Kyrgyzstan have a culture of respecting elders and therefore, the younger workers are often apprehensive to express their disagreements and concerns, and confront their senior co-workers. One needs to understand and be sensitive to this senior-junior dynamic of co-workers. In some cases, people may expect the non-local bosses to be more approachable and less authoritarian.
A superior is respected by his or her level of experience in the work at hand. His or her experience and ability to manage, succeed and treat the workers fairly are also very important. A friendly and approachable boss is trusted and liked. A foreigner also needs to understand about age factor and a person who is elder is usually shown more respect when addressed (first name of the elder person is not usually used). A superior who is not respected and disliked is not usually told about it directly, unless there is a serious issue. It is possible that some members of the staff may talk about the superior they dislike privately. If a superior who is not respected treats staff members unfairly, then some members may openly challenge and confront the superior either in private or in public.
The literacy rate in Kyrgyzstan is extremely high, a good education is assumed in a manager and anyone who is fortunate enough to have a job is likely to work very hard. Expats are not expected to work as hard as locals but will be respected if they do. If you find one of the people who report to you naming their newborn baby after you, you know that you have gained their respect and caring. They might even say, ‘If I had a son/daughter, I would name him/her …(your name)'.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In many workplaces, ideas are usually initiated by bosses and brought to staff meetings. However, decisions are made by bosses and their trusted staff members (usually assistants). It is however, acceptable to go to one's immediate supervisor for answers or feedback. There are also cases when someone who is reluctant to go directly will find a respected staff member to express his or her views and concerns via that person.
Some of the people with whom I worked functionned as a cooperative but I quickly learned not to use that term. As a former member of the Soviet Union, cooperatives have all sorts of different connotations for them than they do for us. Generally, I think the work culture and behaviour is fairly similar to North America but perhaps a little more formal. On the surface a very egalitarian history (remember they were part of the Soviet Union) but in fact there is a fairly traditional division of labour at least regarding the family, house, cooking etc. Although it is outlawed, there has been a revival of the tradition of ‘bride-kidnapping', mostly in the more remote villages
Religion: Officially, the majority of the population is Muslim but certainly there is rty who will able and willing to either provide feedback to you or consult with others to obtain accurate feedback. Going to your supervisor to find out how you are viewed in a project or company can be effective, but so often you won’t obtain accurate and useful feedback because your peers will not have provided your supervisor with such information. Usually, the best approach is to find a close associate who can find the accurate information from the "shop floor" so to speak, and then communicate this accurately to you.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Gender relations are not a very serious issue in Kyrgyzstan. There can be issues and complaints that there is a subtle gender discrimination against female workers in the workplace (e.g., superiors are usually males, though not exclusively). On the other hand, male bosses and co-workers usually treat women who work with them with respect.
In Kyrgyzstan, people practice many religions (most Islam and Christianity). However, people practice religion individually and outside their workplace. Thus, there are no religious issues in the workplace.
The USSR's policies and practices of class equality impacted people' attitudes and relations to each other. However, there has recently been an increase in class-consciousness; people who have more wealth and status are treated with respect.
Many ethnicities live in Kyrgyzstan; the principal ones being Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Russian. Uzbeks live predominantly in the south of the country. People generally live in cohesion and are tolerant of each other (except 1990 ethnic riots between Uzbek and Kyrgyz). However, one needs to show inclusiveness towards their co-workers and be sensitive to different ethnic groups (e.g., not to show bias or subjectivity to one group over another).
On the surface a very egalitarian history (remember they were part of the Soviet Union) but in fact there is a fairly traditional division of labour at least regarding the family, house, cooking etc. Although it is outlawed, there has been a revival of the tradition of ‘bride-kidnapping’, mostly in the more remote villages
Officially, the majority of the population is Muslim but certainly there is little evidence of strict adherence to the fundamentalist laws of Islam. There appears to be a rich culture of myths and some superstition, much of which is probably based in Islam. I saw no evidence of religious bigotry or prejudice.
Many of the attitudes regarding class are probably rooted in their Soviet past. When Stalin came to power he was faced with a highly illiterate population so in order for him to create his industrial and military force he needed an educated population. He forced the primarily nomadic Kyrgyz peoples (and many others, of course) into towns and villages and made education compulsory and free right through to the level of Phd. With the collapse of the Soviet economy Kyrgyzstan is now left with a highly literate, bilingual (Kyrgyz and Russian) population who are extremely poor. There seems to be a ‘class division’ developing between those people who work for the various ‘joint venture’ projects, funded by either Dutch, German, American, French and other capital, and those who work in officially funded jobs such as teachers, nurse, doctors, etc. The latter may make between $10 – $30 US whereas a joint venture project may pay about 10 times that.
There are some conflicts regarding border disputes in the South, particularly with Uzbekistan, creating some tensions between the Uzbek community and the Kyrgyz and Russian communities. Those two communities have lived together for so long and it appears that they are quite content with that although there was a major surge of emigration of the Russian population after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. A relatively small group of Turkish business people have set up businesses primarily in Bishkek. They have been astute and well capitalized so have generally done well. Most have not integrated into the Kyrgyz life and most are believed to take their money back to Turkey with them rather than supporting the local economy. There has also been a perception that some ruthless merchants from China have seen Kyrgyzstan as a good ‘dumping ground’ for inferior products. I do not know how much truth there is in these allegations but the perception has lead to some amount of prejudice.
Workplace: The influence of this on the workplace would have to be analyzed in each separate case.
It can be important to get to know people and establish good relationship with them. People work well with those they trust. Informal meetings, dinner or lunch with a colleague is usually helpful to establish good relations. However, in some offices formal relations are quite common. When inviting someone for lunch or dinner, a foreigner needs to be aware that usually a person who invites will pay for food. Males usually pay for female co-workers. It is best to make it explicit who should pay for food.
Keep in mind that most Kyrgyz people with whom you relate will have grown up thinking of ‘The West' as ‘the Evil Empire' and have most of their information about life in North America from TV re-runs of Dallas and other similar television shows. Try to establish a more realistic image of you, your family and your life in Canada. Pay attention to the children; that will win you lots of points.
Privileges and favouritism
There is the possibility that a colleague or employee might expect special privileges or considerations given your personal friendship or relationship (e.g., hiring a relative or friend). I would normally refrain from recommending the special privilege or consideration, especially since foreign bosses usually have reputation of being honest and incorruptible.
There certainly is some evidence of special treatment, nepotism and favoritism but it is difficult to generalize.
Conflicts in the workplace
If you have a work-related problem with a colleague, then it is best to discuss with him or her privately. Public display of emotion is not good and may cause a bigger conflict. You would normally find out whether a colleague is having a problem with you or is offended by something you said or did from his or her actions and behaviours. If that person tries to avoid you and is not open to discuss with you about everyday matters, then there is possibly some problem. Sometimes, you may also find out from other people that a certain colleague may not be happy with you.
I certainly would not confront a colleague publicly. In fact, I don't think that any form of confrontation would be appropriate. A gentle exploration with the colleague of the situation might be more constructive.
Motivating local colleagues
Your colleagues will be motivated by job satisfaction as much as financial benefits. They will also like to work because of good working conditions and good relations among co-workers. Because there are not currently many jobs available in Kyrgyzstan, some workers may have a fear of losing a job and therefore will work hard.
Making a liveable income for oneself and family is clearly a major motivator. Also, the respect and approval of family and community are very important to Kyrgyz people. The lack of a job has been very difficult for many men, many of whom have become highly depressed and tended toward alcoholism.
Recommended books, films & foods
Central Asia, The Practical Handbook, Giles Whittell; Cadogan Books Ltd; Cadogan Guide to Central Asia; Bishkek Handbook - Inside and Out, Daniel Prior; Accent, Bishkek (1995); Central Asia, John King; Lonely Planet Publications, a travel survival kit, Australia (1996); The Law of Unintended Consequences, Tournament of Shadows, The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia; Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac (1999); and Books by Chyngyz Aitmatov (well-known Kyrgyz writer) - Jamilia; First Teacher; Mother's Field; White Steamer; Farewell, Gulsary; Plakha And a Day Lasts Longer than a Century (Snowstorm Station); and "Manas", Painter Theodor Herzen's version of the Manas epic (Text in English); Accent Information Agency, Bishkek. Akaev, A. (2003). Kyrgyz statehood and the national epos ‘Manas'. New York: Global Scholarly Publications. Gleason, G. (1997). The Central Asian states. Boulder: Westview Press. Liu, M.Y. (2003). Detours from utopia on the Silk Road: Ethical dilemmas of neoliberal triumphalism. Central Eurasian Studies Review, 2 (2), 2-10.
Some sources from net
The EFA 2000 Assessment - Country Report: Kyrgyzstan. Retrieved on March 19, 2004 from http://www2.unesco.org/wef/countryreports/kyrgyz/contents.html UNDP Report. (2003). The Kyrgyz Republic. Millennium Development goals: Progress Report. Bishkek. Retrieved March 20, 2004 from http://www.undp.kg/english/publications/2003/mdgpr2003.pdf
- The Snowstorm Station (with English subtitles). Based on Chyngyz Aitmatov's novel A Day Lasts Longer than a Century;
- Beshkempir (also known as Adopted Son). About a young boy's stage of growing in a rural Kyrgyzstan.
- Saratan. This movie centres on the lives of people in one small Kyrgyz village. But, it's also about the whole country's life story following independence.
There is no Kyrgyz food in Canada. But a Canadian may find Kyrgyz food very similar to other Central Asians' food (e.g., Afghani or Iranian).
- Stewart, Rowan with Susie Weldon, Kyrgyz Republic, 2004, N.Y. W.W. Norton
- Lonely Planet Guide, Central Asia
Keep your eyes open for Burkett, Elinor, So Many Enemies, So Little Time: An American Woman In All the Wrong Places – this was recommended to me by a Kyrgyz woman but I have not yet been able to get it.
Meeting and socializing with people is the best way to learn about their culture. Most of the shows, concerts and other events will be in Russian and Kyrgyz. There are many young students of higher education institutions who may be very useful “cultural interpreters”, because they normally want to meet foreigners, especially English-speakers to practice their English. One could learn more about culture by visiting the country-side and attending festivals and events (weddings, celebrations of Nooruz which is a spring holiday in Central Asia, game of “Ulak” played on horse).
There is a rich cultural life in Bishkek; a National Ballet, the Symphony, a Museum of Fine Art, and several craft associations which promote traditional crafts, much of it of very high quality. The English language newspaper which is widely available in Bishkek has info about events in the city. In the small towns and villages there is likely to be very limited cultural or sports events – if you are a soccer player you might get a game going in a rough field! Norruz is the spring equinox and is usually celebrated with folk-dancing, music and traditional foods. Women's Day, March 8th, is an official holiday and in February there is a Men's Day which apparently used to be a day to honour the Soviet Armed Forces.
Manas is a historic epical national hero. The epos "Manas" is the national pride of the Kyrgyz people, the peak of their spiritual life, which they inherited from their ancestors. It reflects the ancient history of the Kyrgyz people and their social life covering the period of millennium. It reflects not only historic events, but also all sides of human life; social, economic, political situation, struggle for independence, relations with other states. It depicts the life, goodness and evil, friendship and humanism, love for homeland, care for people's well-being.
The most famous hero is Manas. The oral poem about Manas, his son and grandson and their brave, good deeds is the central focus for the Kyrgyz myths and history. There are a number of monuments, a special park and many beautiful printed versions of the poem.
The Silk Road may not be a national hero but it figures in the traditions and the art of Kyrgyzstan. The symbol of the Silk Road is the camel so although I don't think there are any camels in Kyrgyzstan today, there are lots of images of camels in the crafts and art of the country.
Shared historical events with Canada
There are no historical events between Kyrgyzstan and Canada that could affect work or social relations.
I think lack of knowledge about or awareness of the existence of the country is perhaps the worst problem. The Cold War animosity between the Soviet Union and the West certainly created some prejudices on both sides.
People do not have stereotypes about Canadians except some people may think that Canadians are very rough hockey players. Many older generations lived during Soviet rule and are very fond of watching hockey on TV. They rooted for USSR playing against Canada. They know Canada as a very strong hockey-playing nation. However, people in Kyrgyzstan do not play hockey (unlike in Kazakhstan, its neighbour).
On a different note, Canadians should also know that many people in Kyrgyzstan associate Canada with gold-mining Cameco Corporation, which was involved in controversy (spilling of cyanide into the Barskoon river in 1998).
The proximity to more fundamentalist Muslim countries may create some unfounded anxiety in a post-9/11 North America.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural Iiterpreter was born in Otuz-Adyr village of Osh oblast (province), one of ten children. He was raised, attended school and lived in this village until the age of 17 in the south of Kyrgyzstan. He moved to Osh town to study at university. He graduated with a teaching degree (diploma) from the Osh State University in 1993. Afterwards, he did his master's degree in Teacher Education at the Aga Khan University (Karachi, Pakistan). He came to Canada in 2000 to study at a doctoral level at the University of Toronto. He his currently living in Toronto and studying. He is not married and has no children.
Your cultural interpreter was born and raised in Denmark. When she was 19 she immigrated to Canada where she worked, married and raised 4 children. At the age of 40 she got a BA (Hons) in Sociology, at 50 she got an MBA, both from Simon Fraser University in BC. She spent a year traveling in Europe and North Africa and has travelled extensively in Europe, Asia and Australia. She has worked as a CESO Volunteer in Guyana, Kyrgyzstan and on the Aboriginal Program in Canada including Nunavut. She is now retired from her job as a teacher at a Community college in Toronto and lives with her husband in British Columbia, Canada.
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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