Lao Culture

Communication

Verbal

  • Indirect Communication: Lao generally communicate indirectly. This is mostly due to the concept of face and the need to preserve face among all present in a conversation. In turn, Lao tend to be non-confrontational and will avoid giving direct refusals. Lao may offer a response that they assume one wants to hear, regardless of their personal feelings or plans.
  • Conflict: Among all ethnic groups, particularly the Lao Loum (ethnic Lao), a high value is placed on avoiding conflict or actions that may cause emotional discomfort or embarrassment. When there is a conflict, it is usually resolved through an intermediary rather than directly with the person who has taken offence. Once a conflict has been resolved, the two parties can meet hospitably without addressing the conflict.
  • Hierarchy: Lao tend to pay close attention and respect to the social hierarchy to avoid a faux pas that may cause conflict. In conversation, it is important to address the most senior person first (e.g., the head of a family) before speaking directly with others.
  • Soft Voices: Lao are often softly spoken and reserved. Loud expressions of feelings are usually not appreciated.
  • Agreement: The word ‘yes' does not always mean agreement. At times, when a Lao agrees with something, they may say ‘yes', ‘maybe', ‘possibly' or ‘no’. Thus, an effective way of communicating is to pay attention to non-verbal cues like facial expressions, as well as to ask the question in different ways to gain a clearer understanding of your Lao counterpart's position.


Non-Verbal

  • Physical Contact: Physical contact in Laos is acceptable among people of the same gender, but is usually minimal. Between men and women, affection is rarely shown in public. Similarly, it is forbidden for a woman to directly touch a Buddhist monk. A couple may hold hands with one another depending on where they are located. Lao tend not to touch others during conversations.
  • Personal Space: The general distance between two people conversing is an arm’s length. When conversing with a superior or elder, Lao tend to stand over an arm’s length apart. Meanwhile, when conversing with a close friend or family, the personal space is usually shorter. 
  • Eye Contact: Direct eye contact with the gaze occasionally diverted is common in most situations. When conversing with a superior or elder, one usually would not make direct eye contact unless the superior one initiates it first. Women (particularly younger women) may avoid making direct eye contact when in a conversation with a man, keeping their gaze directed to the ground instead.
  • Smiling: Lao tend to have a variety of smiles that each indicate different emotions or feelings. Some smiles indicate happiness, while some may be an attempt to cover awkwardness or embarrassment. 
  • Pointing: To indicate direction, one usually points with their entire hand.
  • Beckoning: The common way to beckon someone is by gesturing with all fingers facing downwards and towards oneself.
  • Passing: Passing in between two people should be avoided. In circumstances when this is not possible, usually one will ask permission to pass through and bow slightly so that their head is lower than those of the other two people conversing.
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