Laos 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
In order to politely introduce yourself and make a good impression, it is a good idea to use the standard Lao greeting "sabai dee bor" (the same as "are you well?" or "how are you?") with both hands pressed together as in prayer, held up in front of yourself. You may also bow slightly while doing this. The response for "sabai dee bor" is simply "sabai dee". You may wish to then introduce yourself and explain why you are in Laos and where you come from. At that point, you may express interest in their name, family and job etc. Some men also use a standard handshake.
It is a very bad idea to talk about the political situation or about religion. This is a very sensitive issue in Laos and could actually result in your arrest or deportation from the country.
On meeting someone for the first time in Laos, it is best to be aware that Laos is a traditional country and the people are rather reserved. On the streets they walk in a stately manner; generally speaking, they do not approach foreigners and they do not stare. Therefore, when meeting someone, the same reserve is recommended until a closer friendship is established. Family and work are good topics of conversation and food the most appreciated. One of the first questions that you will probably be asked is, "What do you think of Laotian food?" If asked to eat, you should taste everything and praise the food and the family. Most especially avoid any discussion of politics. Hand shaking is not a Laotian custom, although it is beginning to be adopted in a business context. Incline the head and smile at first until someone teaches you the "wa", the placing of the tips of the fingers together at the correct height according to the rules of seniority and protocol. In fact, incline the head generally and especially when walking in front of people. An excellent practice for establishing continued contact with those you meet, is to give out business cards. Everybody does it and it is important in Laos to remember names and titles. Since the names are long and difficult, it is perfectly acceptable to say Mr/ Mrs and the first name only.
When eating, Westerners have to get used to sitting on mats inside and outside, which at first is uncomfortable. Women must be very careful to not stretch their legs out in front of them. Rather, they have to learn to fold the legs under the body and to the side making sure that the soles of the feet are turned downwards.
When speaking with someone, as a general rule, one arm’s length is an acceptable distance. Eye contact is not particularly important but posture can be, especially when sitting. Touching the head of another adult is considered disrespectful, especially if the person is older than you. However, it is ok to touch children’s heads. Females over the age of 10 are not permitted to touch male monks or stand within 3 feet of them.
Showing the soles of your bare feet is considered a vulgar gesture and most Laotian people take care to sit in a way that hides them from view. Most families sit on the floors of their homes and sit with their legs folded to the side of them, tucking their feet under their skirts or sitting on them. They never sit with their feet propped up or extended straight out towards someone.
A nervous tone of voice or speech patterns may be perceived as a sign of dishonesty.
When talking to a Laotian, a respectful distance is recommended. Eye contact is not a problem, but touching is to be avoided completely, especially males touching women and anyone touching someone on the head. Such acts would be considered a serious breach of decorum. Even Laotian dancing is performed without touching the partner.
The Laotian are mostly a quiet, self-effacing and undemonstrative people, therefore all contact should be carried out in a subdued manner especially tone of voice. Gestures should be kept to a minimum.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection such as kissing and hugging are considered distasteful, but hand holding common. Humour and laughing are widely accepted; public displays of anger are considered shameful and embarrassing.
Public displays of affection, anger or other emotions are not acceptable at all. A display of anger will cause you to lose face immediately and, quite likely for the rest of your stay. Hand- holding, kissing and hugging are simply never seen on Laotian streets and would definitely be frowned upon.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Laotian women are expected to wear a traditional skirt no shorter than knee length with a blouse. Men usually wear long pants and a dress shirt or traditional Lao men’s shirt. Generally sandals are worn, but not usually in offices.
Conservative dress codes usually apply for foreigners as well. Laotians do not generally like women to wear short skirts, in public or private. However, tourists are permitted to do so.
When addressing a Laotian supervisor, Mr. or Ms. is not generally used. Laotians usually refer to them as elders or aunts and uncles as a respectful gesture.
Pay tends to be salaried rather than hourly and is usually issued once a month rather than bi- weekly. Sickness or absence can usually be worked out with a valid explanation and employees are not usually penalized. Their coworkers will usually be asked to perform their tasks until they return.
Failure to perform the job well will usually result in dismissal.
The first most important thing you can do (before going to Laos, if possible), is to learn the language. The Laotian place enormous importance on foreigners speaking their language. They are an exceedingly proud people and at the same time are greatly daunted by the fact that they are surrounded (and controlled) by very large countries. They feel small in the scheme of things and by learning their language you give them status. They, themselves, are excellent language learners and are amongst the best in Asia.
Dress, too, is very important and another piece of advice to women is to go to the Morning Market in Vientiane and buy a "sin" which is the Laotian skirt, a colourful and very useful garment worn by Laotian women everywhere. Unlike some cultures where the wearing of local dress is considered an offense, it is the very opposite in Laos. Western clothes may be worn as well, but Laos is a rough country; the roads are bad and dust is everywhere. If you don’t have a car, you have to get in and out of "tuk tuks" so you need flexibility in clothing and modesty as well. It is preferable not to wear short skirts and sleeveless blouses. Shoes are best without backs so that they can be slipped on and off easily at people’s homes. In the ministries, and other public buildings, you do not have to remove your shoes. Men wear western clothes and corporate suits in all public service offices as well as on the streets. However, you may be invited to a student party or an elegant French restaurant and find yourself to be the only one in such garb; everyone else is in jeans or European fashions.
Time in Laos is somewhat elastic; in fact, in my fairly extensive experience, nowhere in the world does the adage, "patience is a virtue" apply to the extent that it does in Laos even though, in the working world, this grinding pace is changing every day. As a foreigner, it is recommended that you observe what your colleagues do and act accordingly. Rigidity is not recommended in Laos.
Preferred managerial qualities
Education obtained in foreign countries such as Europe or North America is preferable in a manager. Laotians consider this quite an asset.
A supervisor from a foreign country or culture would be treated with more formal gestures or at least highly respected.
Laos is still a Communist country and one of the problems is the lack of stimulating jobs, if you are a civil servant, which most Laotian people are. Students go abroad for studies and come back to very little work. Both Westerners and the Laotian are frustrated by what they perceive as a wasteful and demoralizing lack of useful production. Generally speaking, you have to "wait your turn" for everything: scholarships, promotion and favours of all kinds. Qualities, therefore, such as education (except as a means to an end), scholarship/ esoteric knowledge and experience are not prized the way connections (to the Party) are; connections will get you to where you want to go. Expat managers are treated as experts who may bring benefits and are given a lot of respect.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Staff relation issues are usually dealt with by the staff discussing the issues with their colleagues or perhaps by going to a senior manager, not the supervisor. This is because Laotians generally prefer a more passive approach in order to avoid confrontation.
Orders come down the chain of command from the top. Laos is very hierarchical and new ideas are often perceived as a threat. You have to be very careful how you use your talents. In the private sector, this attitude is beginning to change, but not very much in the public sector, although there, too, it is changing. An immediate supervisor is the only one to go to for answers or feedback. To go over the heads of others would be unacceptable.
Caution, never demean or confront the Laotian or cause them to lose face, no matter how seemingly innocent. The concept of ’face’ is a very delicate matter and vigilance should be maintained at all times. You may have been just joking in the manner of your culture, but this type error is rarely forgiven!
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Females are generally in lower or lighter duty jobs and don’t always have equal opportunities due to lack of education or obligations relating to marriage or domestic situations. Males have more pressure to perform and are generally the breadwinners. They may have an easier time finding employment than females with the same experience.
It is also important to note that, in Laos, it not considered acceptable for women to smoke cigarettes; there is a general misconception that this implies that she is "loose" or a prostitute....or ill-mannered. It is quite common for men to smoke.
Buddhism is the national religion and approximately 90% of Laotians are Buddhists. Laotians accept other cultures and religions, as long as others respect the fact that they do not wish to be converted or have ideas pushed on them. The Government of Laos has a very low tolerance of any distribution or public expression of foreign religious ideas to their citizens.
Usually, higher classes can afford better education and therefore have the better jobs. The lower classes are usually less educated and in lower skilled or menial jobs.
There are about 68 different ethnic and cultural groups within Laos and there is little racial tension between the groups. Lao Loom is the largest or main group; your cultural interpreter is from this group.
Local cultural attitudes towards women are quite egalitarian. This does not mean that there are large numbers of women in highly-placed jobs. It is more a matter of education levels and flexibility. Since Laos is very poor, the men get a better education simply because of expediency. The women have the responsibilities of home and family and are not available for work. Those that do occupy paid positions maintain a brother/sister relationship with their male colleagues. A high rate of divorce exists in Laos, but systemic and social discrimination does not seem to be part of the culture.
Buddhism, the religion of Laos, is practised in a very non-confrontational manner. The monks are, one might even say, casual. The religion/philosophy is very much a part of everyday life. Monks come and go from the monastery; others stay for life. At festivals, they perform their Basi ceremony duties and are looked upon with respect and some affection.
The Basi is a ceremony that involves, amongst other things, tying strings around the wrists of others as a sign of friendship. If it is an important Basi, a monk will preside. You can have a Basi for almost anything: a welcome to the village, a birth, wedding, receiving a scholarship, going on a trip etc.
Laos is a society made up of government, richer people, and a significant poor and extremely poor population. There is virtually no middle class. The Collective is still minimally observed as a leveller of society bringing people together for such tasks as tree planting, cutting lawns, cleaning up classrooms by students, but done only if ordered and is not rigidly adhered to. There is not a lot of civic pride as yet in Laos.
Until relatively recently, ethnicity was a potential source of conflict. However, great strides have been made to change attitudes and improve the working situations of, for example, the Mong people. In my experience, there was no perceptible difference between the treatment of ethnic Mong teachers and everyone else.
Politeness is very important in Laotian society and business dealing should always start with a greeting. They always greet each other with "sabai dee" or "sabai de bor" and then offer assistance etc. Language between colleagues may be less formal, but the initial greeting is still important.
Speaking from a public sector point-of-view, it is almost impossible to not establish a personal friendship with colleagues. The Laotian are an endearing people.
Privileges and favouritism
Yes, there would be great expectation that you would hire their family members or close friends.
Business development is controlled by the government and huge favours would probably be demanded in order to acquire a business permit. As a private individual intending to stay a while, contacting the head of the village and putting on a Basi ceremony goes a long way to establishing good relations.
Usually, there are some strings attached to personal friendships with colleagues: helping with personal writing assignments and other such tasks. Such help is given in the spirit of freeing people’s time so that they can work additional jobs in the markets to increase the meagre amount of money they are paid by the Government. It is not considered a phenomenon of exploitation or a sign of unwillingness on their part to do the job.
Conflicts in the workplace
You should speak privately because if someone should overhear your conversation, they would likely tell the boss or get the management involved. This could result in your dismissal.
If someone is upset with you, they are not likely to verbally confront you but they may behave abruptly in your presence, avoid you or purposely be rude to you by being noisy around you.
Should a work-related problem arise with a colleague, the best method would be to take the colleague to a "beer shop" and establish a working relationship of camaraderie. The Laotian can be pretty direct; if you have offended, they would let you know.
Motivating local colleagues
Fear of job loss, money and good working conditions are the main motivating factors.
Money is the principal motivator in a country as poor as Laos. Loyalty to the Party is important in order to get a job/promotion. In the public sector, you can’t be fired, but you could be demoted, or be denied further perks and so on. All else, such as commitment to the job, good working conditions, job satisfaction, are a luxury in the Laotian context.
Recommended books, films & foods
Vientane Times, Lao.com, and The Lonely Planet.
Food to eat
Papaya salad, pho (noodle soup), sticky rice, jasmine rice, fish, quail, different types of curries, Fresh wrap spring rolls. You may wish to prepare yourself before you go by eating Thai food, which is very similar to Lao food. Lao food is very spicy.
The small land-locked country of Laos has had little exposure to the world. However, it is an ASEAN member now and receives attention from all the large developing agencies including: UNESCO, WORLD BANK, UNICEF and especially AusAid. The Government of Laos PDR has signed several major international conventions and declarations that commit to focusing on girls’ and women’s education as well as boys and minorities. Much can be learned by studying: AusAid, Asian Development Bank, UNICEF and World Bank websites on existing and proposed projects.
On a cultural level, developing a taste for sticky rice is a good start to the Laotian diet as well as green papaya salad (hot!) As recommended earlier, learning the language and finding some Laotian people locally to talk to and learn from, would be an excellent beginning. The National Film Board may have some documentaries on the country, but more likely, American publications and websites would have more to offer because of the large numbers of Laotian people living in California and other parts of the US since the Vietnam War, especially the Mong.
Visit the temples and ancient ruins in Louang Prabang, and the That Louang temple in Vientiane. Vong Vieng is a touristy area with lots of waterfalls, caves and tourist resorts. In Vientiane, the capital city, you will find the most modern conveniences and shopping at the Morning Market.
Most of the monks are highly educated and speak English. Tourist offices are usually identified by signs that say "Visit Laos" or "Travel Laos". Throughout the year, there are different celebrations and cultural activities: Lao New Year, April 13, celebrated for one week long; That Louang Celebration, November 10, 2 weeks long; and Dragonboat races and floating lantern festival, September.
In the country itself, unless you speak and read the language extremely well, you will not benefit from newspapers, television and radio (sparse as they are). Your absorption of the culture will come through the people you get to know, the invitations to homes, restaurants, beer shops, travelling on buses to different parts the country such as Luang Prabang, being invited to football games, rowing contests, and attending a Basi ceremony for all kinds of events (which include Laotian dancing). The people of Laos provide it all. They are known as, "The fun-loving Laotian" which is true to some extent in spite of the privations they endure and a life expectancy of around forty. They love a party, drinking, and jokes, which are almost always sexual and can be pretty ribald especially in the songs. So beware!
Souphanou Vong and Kaisone Phomvichan are two national heroes who led the communist movement and united Laos and Vietnam against the former Lao Royal Emperor.
The heroes of Laos are the local and Thai pop singers and football (soccer) players. The natural singing ability of the Laotian people is legendary. Tapes of the current singers can be bought at the Morning Market in Vientiane and presumably in other countries as well.
Shared historical events with Canada
The Vietnam War. Most Laotians do not like to discuss the War because of its tragic affects on the country’s economy and the mass devastation that it caused. Many tourists in Laos look for the remnants of the war such as old artillery or bombshells, which is a wide spread problem in the countryside. Over 25, 000 Laotians have been killed or dismembered by unexploded ordinances since the end of the war and this is a very sensitive issue. There is a documentary specifically dealing with the impact of the War and how it has affected the economy and daily life of the people. The remnants of the War still have a direct impact on daily life.
The good name of Canada prevails in Laos as it does most everywhere else. Say you are from Canada and you will most likely hear various versions of: "Canada good!"
Lao people refer to all whites as "Falang", a slang pronunciation of France or Français, which traces back to resentment towards the former French rule over much of Asia.
Little is known about Laos and CUSO is the only Canadian development organization left in the country to my knowledge. Stereotyping would be almost unimaginable. Rather, it is a country to be discovered and savoured.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Phon Hong, Laos, approximately 68km from the Capital, Vientane. He comes from a family of 10 children. He was raised in this city in central Laos until the age of 17, when he moved to Vientiane to attend teachers college (gai gna suk sa). After graduating as a sports instructor, he immigrated to Canada to live and work in Ottawa. He currently resides in Gatineau, Quebec.
Your cultural interpreter was born in New Zealand and went to Australia on completing high school. She studied music and worked in Melbourne for three years and came to Canada via Europe. In Canada, she took a BA (Honours) in English Literature and Languages, and went to Hong Kong where she taught in Kowloon for two years. On returning to Canada, she studied linguistics, and worked in the Applied Linguistics Department and completed a BA Education at McGill University, and an MA at New York University. For the next ten years she taught language, literature and research at various universities in the Middle East. From 1997 to 1999 worked as a volunteer in Laos with World University Service of Canada (WUSC), where she taught English studies, and developed materials at the University of Vientiane. Since 2000, she has worked as a screener and writer at a center for human rights and democracy in Ottawa.
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.