Cambodian Culture

Communication

Verbal

  • Indirect Communication: Cambodians generally have an indirect communication style.  Questions are often expressed in vague terms, especially if it is a negative topic. Since the concept of face underpins interactions, Cambodians tend to avoid giving flat-out refusals and smile and nod to keep interactions amenable. Cambodians will also tend to answer indirectly to a negative topic or difficult question. A common response is to say, ‘same, same but different’.
  • Agreement: In Cambodia, the word ‘yes’ can have different meanings. Besides denoting agreement, sometimes ‘yes’ is used to indicate that the person is listening, much like nodding. It can also indicate that the person understands what is being said. Ensure that you understand the context in which ‘yes’ has been said by paying attention to facial expression and body language.
  • Compliments: Modesty and humility are important traits in Cambodian culture. In keeping with this, compliments and praise tend to be met with a deprecating comment or polite disagreement.
  • Humour: Cambodians are quite cheerful and enjoy laughing. Jokes are often told, but sarcastic humour is rarely used.

 

Non-Verbal

  • Physical Contact: Physical contact in Cambodia is acceptable among people of the same gender, but is usually minimal. This may include holding hands and hugging. Public displays of affection between couples, such as kissing, are generally not shown. Buddhist monks are forbidden to engage in any physical contact with women.
  • Personal Space: The general distance between two people conversing is an arm’s length. When in conversation with a friend or close acquaintance, this distance is shorter.
  • Pointing: Pointing with a single finger is considered to be rude and accusatory. Some Cambodians may use their mouth to point by making a kissing or pouting gesture towards the object.
  • Eye Contact: Indirect eye contact tends to be the norm in most situations. Direct eye contact should be diverted every now and again to soften the interaction; intense eye contact can be viewed as a challenge to the other person. When being instructed or spoken to by a superior or someone who is older, it is respectful to lower one’s eyes. Women may avoid making direct eye contact with a male by focusing her eyes on the ground.
  • Beckoning: The common way to beckon someone is by gesturing with the hand facing downwards and waving fingers towards oneself, the same gesture that would represent ‘shooing’ in Australia. The gesture for ‘shooing’ is stronger and faster, emphasising the hand away from the body, whereas the gesture for beckoning is softer and slower with the hand moving towards the body.
  • Smiling: While Cambodians often smile in conversations, the meaning of a smile tends to depend on the situation. At times, a smile may indicate happiness or pleasure, while other times it may be a polite response to a statement or question that they do not understand. In some circumstances, a smile is used as an attempt to cover awkwardness, embarrassment or sadness.
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