Myanmar (Burmese) Culture

Etiquette

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Basic Etiquette

  • How one sits, walks or otherwise interacts with others is based on the status of each person present. For example, it is expected that people are especially conscious of their behaviour in the presence of an elder.
  • Younger people are expected to keep their body lower than those that are older than them. For example, they may duck their head or bow slightly as they pass, or sit on a lower seat.
  • To pay deep respect, kneel on the ground and touch your palms and forehead to the floor three times. This custom is called the ‘kadaw’. Many people may show respect to monks and images or depictions of Buddha in this same way.
  • It is considered important to dress in modest and neat clothing. Clothing is often used as an indicator of social status, differentiating the wealthy from the impoverished. Most Burmese people wear a ‘longyi’ – a kind of long skirt.
  • When passing or receiving an item, use both hands together to signify respect. The right hand may be used alone in casual situations, but it is taboo to use one’s left hand.
  • If a woman needs to pass something to a monk, it is best to give it to a male to then pass forward or hold the object with a handkerchief/tissue. It is generally forbidden for Buddhist monks to come into physical contact with women.
  • It is rude to blow one’s nose into a tissue around other people.
  • It is impolite to sit on a chair with one’s legs crossed, especially for women.
  • Quickly apologise if you accidentally pick up something that belongs to another person.
  • If you have taken your shoes off, do not leave them lying upside down. This is believed to cause bad luck.
  • It is customary to walk behind people who are older than yourself. If you have to walk in front of someone, ask first or apologise. If someone is seated, walk around them.
  • Some Chin may cross their arms when in front of an elder out of respect.

 

Cleanliness

There is a strong emphasis on cleanliness in Myanmar, influenced by social and religious customs. Certain actions, objects and body parts are considered particularly pure or impure. For example, the head is understood to be the purest part of the body, whilst the feet are the dirtiest. Similarly, most actions are performed with the right hand as the left is seen as unclean. As these ideas of purity are deeply entrenched in people’s diet and personal practice, many of the guidelines surrounding etiquette below relate to respecting them.

  • Do not touch someone on the top of their head, especially anyone who is older than you. This is rude and insensitive.
  • When passing or receiving an item, use both hands together to signify respect. The right hand may be used by itself; however, the left hand should be supporting the right elbow to show that both are being incorporated.
  • Never give or receive anything with the left hand alone.
  • Only pass food and wipe your mouth with your right hand. The left should only be used to stabilise plates.
  • The soles of one’s feet should never be pointed at another person. One should sit in a way that avoids this.
  • Feet should also not be rested on tables or pillows that people sleep on.
  • One should not outstretch their legs with their feet pointed towards another person.
  • Rinsing your hands after a meal should not take place under the same faucet where you clean your muddy toes.  

 

Visiting

  • There is a deep tradition and culture of hospitality and openness in Myanmar. Indeed, hotels are a relatively new concept as people usually stay with friends and relatives in other regions for as long as needed.
  • An invitation to be a guest should not be approached too casually as it is considered an honour to host.
  • People who have travelled from out of town to visit may stay overnight.
  • Take your shoes off when entering someone’s home.
  • Burmese people may sit on the floor to socialise but generally offer the visitor a chair if they have one.
  • Expect to be offered snacks, green tea, coffee or other refreshments.
  • Do not enter the bedroom or kitchen unless you are specifically invited, especially in a Karen household.
  • Be sure to thank your host dearly at the end of a visit. The Burmese say that “one owes a debt to whoever gave even a morsel of food to eat”.

 

Eating

  • If invited to eat with Karen, refuse their offer once initially before graciously accepting.
  • Elders are served first at meals, and in their absence, a spoonful of rice is put aside first in the pot as a token of respect (u cha) before serving the meal.
  • It is rude to eat something without offering it to anyone else present first. Furthermore, if you are eating in view of others, it is a customary gesture to ask anyone around you if they would like some.
  • Similarly, it is good manners to offer food to someone when meeting up with them. If the people have met in public, this is usually a token gesture and it is expected that the other person politely decline. However, if in someone’s home, one should graciously accept the hospitality.
  • It is polite to decline offers of second servings one to two times before graciously accepting.
  • Try to accept any offers of food in an effort to compliment a person’s hospitality.
  • It is rude to sing, hum or listen to music while eating.
  • Rice (htamin) is the main component of most meals. It may be accompanied with curries or salads.
  • Some people may prefer to eat with their hands instead of cutlery. If doing this, scoop and serve yourself with the right hand only.
  • Many Burmese do not drink alcohol because of its prohibition under Buddhism’s principle teachings. Some people may continue to do so; however, these are generally only men. It is culturally inappropriate for women to drink, whether they are religious or not.
  • Some Christians may not drink tea or eat pork on a day of worship (usually Saturday or Sunday).

 

Gift Giving

  • Gifts may be given to pay one’s respects to someone that is superior to them (an action known as ‘gadaw’). For example, children may give gifts to their teachers, and the public often give gifts to monks.
  • Offer and receive gifts with both hands together.
  • Gifts are not opened immediately upon receiving them. This can be seen as greedy on the receiver’s behalf.
  • Be aware that Myanmar has guidelines surrounding gift giving among professionals to reduce corruption.
  • It is best not to give people gifts of a very high value. This can put them in an awkward position by which they feel they cannot accept it.
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Myanmar (Burma)
  • Population
    56,890,418
    [July 2016 est.]
    Note: Estimates for this country take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS. This can result in lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, higher death rates, lower population growth rates, and changes in the distribution of population by age and sex than would otherwise be expected.
  • Languages
    Burmese [Official]
    Shan (Tai)
    Karen languages (Karenic)
    Kachin (Jingpho)
    Chin languages (Kukish)
    Mon
    English
    There are over 100 languages and dialects spoken by minority groups.
  • Religions
    Buddhist (87.9%)
    Christian (6.2%)
    Muslim (4.3%)
    Animist (0.8%)
    Hindu (0.5%)
    Other (0.2%)
    None (0.1%)
    [2014 est.]
    Note: The religion estimate is based on the 2014 national census, including an estimate for the non-enumerated population of Rakhine State, which is assumed to mainly affiliate with the Islamic faith.
  • Ethnicities
    Burman (Bamar) (68%)
    Shan (9%)
    Karen (7%)
    Rakhine (4%)
    Chinese (3%)
    Indian (2%)
    Mon (2%)
    Other (5%)
    Note: there are over 135 indigenous ethnic groups in Burma
  • Australians with Burmese Ancestry
    49,204 [2016 census]
Burmese in Australia
  • Population
    32,655
    [2016 census]
    This figure refers to the number of Australian residents that were born in Myanmar.
  • Average Age
    41
  • Gender
    Male (48.5%)
    Female (51.5%)
  • Religion
    Buddhism (30.1%)
    Baptist Christianity (26.7%)
    Catholic Christianity (20.6%)
    Islam (5.2%)
    Other (17.4%)
  • Ancestry
    Burmese (46.8%)
    Karen (14.0%)
    Chinese (8.8%)
    English (6.9%)
    Other (23.5%)
  • Language Spoken at Home
    Burmese (47.8%)
    English (19.1%)
    Karen (16.2%)
    Burmese and Related Languages, ndf. (3.6%)
    Other (13.3%)
    Of those who speak a language other than English at home, 60.4% speak English fluently.
  • Diaspora
    Western Australia (34.3%)
    Victoria (25.8%)
    New South Wales (23.7%)
    Queensland (8.7%)
  • Arrival to Australia
    Prior to 2001 (43.4%)
    2001-2006 (13.1%)
    2007-2011 (40.2%)
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