Protocols for Cambodian business meetings

I have learned a lot about business protocols by watching Savong in meetings.

I have learned a lot about business protocols by watching Savong in meetings.

When dealing with a business or an NGO, westerners like me sooner or later get involved in a business meeting, and here some of the pronounced cultural differences between western and Khmer approaches are seen. I’m used to business meetings that are positively aggressive – lively interchanges between competing viewpoints where the players are smart, vocal and – despite their differences – good humoured.

Well park that liveliness at the door. In Cambodia meetings are likely to be quite formal with words of greeting from the Chairman, followed by what I’d describe as a fairly solemn discussion of the items in question. There are no interjections, and staff may seem to be avoiding eye-contact. At this point the westerner is wondering: what’s going on here?

In truth, a lot of the meeting may occur in the subtext – in the things not said – and in the silences. In this situation I need to turn on my interpretative radar on full: reading the non-verbal signals. And I need to shut up as well. Let the silence do some of the talking.

By and large there is far less of the snappy exchange and quick decision making – and more deference to authority. The task is not to find which way a quick majority will go for – but rather to interrogate the issue and reach a consensus that everyone can live with.

My advice is to slow down, be gracious and to do as a good friend Steve Burns always advised: “Two ears, one mouth – use them in that proportion.”

These pieces of advice are from the comprehensive visitor guide http://www.angkorvisitor.com

  • Meetings do not stick to any schedule or agenda.
  • Issues may be tackled separately and altogether if need be – once an issue has seemingly been resolved it may later be addressed again.
  • Meetings will continue until the attendees feel everything has been satisfactorily covered.
  • Building a relationship on mutual trust is crucial so initially time should be invested in getting to know your counterparts.
  • Small talk should always be employed at the beginning of meetings.
  • Cambodians are very indirect communicators so some reading between the lines is a necessary skill.
  • They will always consider the implications of making statements or using particular words especially if it involves anything negative as this draws in the issue of face.
  • In fact if Cambodians disagree with someone they would rather remain silent than make any comment.
  • If they disagree with an idea, they generally remain silent.
  • If unsure about statements be sure to double check.
  • Cambodians prefer ideas to be brought forward in a gentle way and to wait for others to respond.
  • Pushy, pressured or boastful communication styles are a real turn-off.
  • Punctuality is important. Arriving late shows a lack of respect for the person with whom you are meeting.
  • Non-verbal behavior is just as important to be aware of. For example, smiling in Cambodia is situational and can have many meanings; it may mean a person does not understand what has been said, they are nervous or even irritated.
  • Showing emotions is considered a negative behaviour. Anger, impatience or frustration should be hidden as it would lead to a loss of face and is considered a sign of weakness as well as poor manners.
  • Modesty and humility are emphasized in the culture, so compliments and praise are generally responded to by a deprecating comment.
  • It is a good idea not to speak with bravado, which may be interpreted as boasting.
  • Avoid prolonged eye contact.
  • Be sure to speak clearly, slowly and to avoid use of slang, adages and colloquial sayings.

More on customs and protocols:

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