Cambodia: Cultural Briefing

When we think of Cambodia, we recall the horrific photos of war atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, or Red Khmers, a communist force which, in 1975 overthrew the pro-American regime that had seized power from the pro-American regime.  During this era of terror and destruction, lasting until 1979, nearly 1.7 million Cambodians died of malnutrition, overwork, executions, and mistreated diseases as the Maoist-inspired regime sought to change Cambodia into a communist country overnight.  Vietnam, fearing the spread of the Khmer Rouge and in response to the world outcry at the inhumanity, invaded Cambodia in 1979.  Vietnam continued its protection of Cambodia until 1989. 

Cambodia came under United Nations protection in 1991, and held general elections in 1993, becoming a constitutional monarchy.  The UN and many, many international NGO’s have since provided significant foreign aid, to strengthen the social and civil society in Cambodia.  In 1999 Cambodia became a full-fledged member of the Southeast Asian community, ending years of isolation.

Understanding the cultural norms of Cambodia requires an understanding of Theravada Buddhism, the predominate religion of Cambodia, and as such the foundation for interpersonal interactions.

Theravada Buddhism which originated in India, teaches that that life and death in this world are intertwined through the concept of reincarnation. Every person lives a life as a worldly being and depending on their behaviors will come back in their next life as a higher or lower being. “Karma” is the term used to describe this: if you do good you will have good karma. A rough translation of this is, “you reap what you sow.”

The hierarchical social structure is key to understanding the norms of the Cambodian culture.  Common hierarchical guidelines are that parents are superior to children, teachers to students and managers to subordinates. You will also see the value placed on hierarchy in the way that monks walk – they do so in rank order, the most senior in front and the most junior at the rear. As a foreigner you may find that people ask personal questions – this is a means to identify your ‘rank’ rather than being nosy. They may change the way they communicate depending on your status.

Cambodia is a collective society – individuals take second place to the group whether this is the family, neighborhood, or company. In such societies, etiquette and protocol guidelines are used to maintain a sense of common harmony – for example subtle communication styles are employed in order to minimize the chances of causing offense to others.

Cambodia is a face culture, where importance is placed on protecting the reputation of oneself and of others. Face can be lost, given and accrued. It can be lost if one is criticized, embarrassed, or exposed in public. It can also be lost by the person doing the criticizing as others will perceive them as lacking etiquette and potentially as someone not to be trusted. It can also be lost by failing to take care of one’s appearance.  Face can be gained by acting respectfully, wearing nice clothes, doing well in the workplace or through the act of giving face to others.

As a Citizen Ambassador, honored guest, colleague, and counterpart; your actions and words may impact Face for your Cambodian counterparts.   being mindful of Face, to ensure your actions do not cause anyone to lose Face.  This can include:

  • Saying something that could be perceived as a criticism may cause someone to feel a loss of Face.
  • Presenting yourself in appropriate attire for professional will both preserve Face for your host and gain Face for you.

Meeting your Cambodian Counterparts

Please begin your professional exchange preparation by reading the Professional Exchange Preparation information on the Citizen Ambassador Program Delegation Communications site.

Greetings between Cambodians are dependent on the relationship/hierarchy/age between the people. You should always make the effort to greet the most senior / oldest person first and the least senior / youngest person last. Going straight to the lowest person in the hierarchy, may well cause the most senior person to feel a loss of face.

The traditional greeting is a bow combined with a bringing of the hands together at chest level (similar to bringing hands together for prayer). If one intends to show greater respect the bow is lower, and the hands brought higher. This is called Som Pas. Cambodians use Som Pas for greeting and to display respect.

When used for greeting, it would be impolite not to return a Som Pas; it is tantamount to rejecting an offered handshake in Western culture.

In Cambodia today, Western cultural influence is being accepted. Cambodian men often shake hands. Women, however, often adhere to the traditional greeting and are reluctant to shake hands, as Cambodians are not accustomed to touching, especially those of the opposite sex. In the U.S., many Cambodian women still are reluctant to shake hands, especially the older generation or new immigrants.

In formal situation, Cambodians address people with Lok (Mr.) or Lok Srey (Mrs.) followed by his/her given name or both given and family name. Rarely is the family name used by itself as Westerners do. For example, my name is Keo Mony. Keo is my family name and Mony my given name. I will be addressed Mr. Mony. In the U.S., I am often addressed Mr. Keo. Some Cambodians consider using only the family name impolite as that was the name of the individual’s father, grandfather, or ancestor.

  • Cambodians consider the head as highest part of the body and the focal point of intelligence and spiritual substance. The head is sacred. Therefore, it is an extreme insult to touch or to pat an individual’s head.
  • Feet, on the contrary, are considered the lowest part of the body and unclean.

Professional Meetings

It is important that you are prompt for the departure to your professional meetings.  Your fellow delegates and counterparts are waiting for you.  Arriving late shows a lack of respect for the person with whom you are meeting.  Yet, structured agendas and timing does not have the same value in Cambodia as it does in other cultures; hence, meetings do not necessarily stick to any schedule or set topics.

Meetings can be slightly circular, which means that 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  may draw in the issue of face. In fact, if Cambodians disagree with someone, they may remain silent, rather than make a comment which might cause upset or embarrassment to another person in the meeting.

Due to the indirectness of the Cambodian communication style and the value placed on face, you may feel that you are not getting a clear answer. This may be because your Cambodian colleague disagrees with you but doesn’t want to say, or, that they are not comfortable with a planned course of action. You should try and probe their true feelings by asking open questions in a number of different ways.

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.

Non-verbal behavior is just as important. 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 behavior. Anger, impatience, or frustration should be hidden as it would lead to a loss of face. 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.

Attire for Professional Meetings and Cultural activities

There is a growing western influence in Cambodia, and western clothing is fairly common.  When meeting with your professional counterparts, we recommend a conservative approach to attire.  You will find conservative dressing is expected in certain situations, especially when visiting religious places, or during business and official meetings.

For government meetings or briefings by senior professionals, it is best to dress in US standard professional attire.  Men should plan on a sports jack, and tie, women should wear smart pantsuits, skirts that extend to the knee and professional dresses.  Limiting loud prints and attire with graphic designs or logos should be avoided.

Good walking shoes are a must for cultural activities.  Attire for both men and women should be comfortable and relaxed, yet tasteful.  “Short” shorts or spaghetti strap tops may be considered disrespectful to the Buddha.  At the Hotel, or around the pool, western standards of dress are acceptable.

Wearing clothing similar to what local’s wear is the safest way to dress, to ensure you are appropriate.   Cotton and linen trousers are good, safe options. As most countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia tends to be hot and humid, cotton and linen clothes are comfortable to wear. Loose trousers in light colors are recommended.

Business card and Gifts

Business cards should be exchanged after the initial introductions. Have one side of your card translated into Khmer if possible. Present your card so the Khmer side is readable to the recipient.

Use the right hand or both hands when offering or receiving a business card. It is important to treat business cards with respect as the way you handle the card is indicative of the way you will treat the person. Placing it in your back pocket and sitting down will not be perceived well. Equally, putting it down on the table without taking the time to look at it and to thank the giver properly, may well be perceived as indifference to the relationship.

Gifts at professional meetings are an important part of the exchange.  Please see the section on Professional Gifts, on the Professional Exchange Preparation page of  the Citizen Ambassador Program website.

When presenting gifts in Cambodia, there are a few important cultural norms to follow. 

  1. Do not use white wrapping paper, as the color white represents the color of mourning.
  1. When giving gifts use both hands.
  2. Gifts are not opened when received.

Dining Etiquette

Table manners are fairly formal. Cambodians typically eat with chopsticks or with a spoon and fork. If a Cambodian is using a spoon and fork, they use the fork to move the food onto their spoon, before placing the spoon in their mouth. It’s also not uncommon for Cambodians to use their hands when eating. 

When invited to the dining table wait to be told where to sit as you would not want to upset any hierarchical arrangements. The oldest person is usually seated first. Similarly, the eldest person should start eating before others. Do not begin eating until the eldest person starts.

  • Never discuss business in such social settings.
  • If you are concerned with the dos and don’ts, simply follow what others do.

Cuisine in Cambodia

Traditional Cambodian food, though uniquely Khmer, is likened to Thai food, but with a precise set of flavors − salty, sweet, spicy and sour − to form a distinctive taste.

Because of the country’s incredible richness in waterways including the Mekong, Sap and Bassac Rivers, as well as the massive lake, Tonlé Sap, freshwater fish and seafood, such as salmon, squid and prawns, is especially popular, featuring prominently in soups, curries, stir-fries and salads. Beef, pork, chicken, duck, and other poultry are widely available but more expensive than fish dishes. For fearless eaters, other less-common sources of protein include locusts, fried tarantula, cooked scorpions, and grilled snake.

Cambodia’s staple is rice – indeed, the Khmer term for “to eat” is “nam bai”, which directly translates to “eat rice”. Cambodia has the regular aromatic rice, but also a delicious glutinous sticky rice. Other important starches include manioc, taro, and sweet potatoes. If rice isn’t on the table, its place is taken by noodles. Cambodians love their greens: vegetables are served crisp and fresh, or wok-fried in curries, soups, and stews. Spices, herbs, such as basil, mint, and coriander, rhizomes, dried fruits, flowers, and leaves flavor and garnish the food.

The hallmark of Khmer cuisine is prahok, a fermented paste made from a small fish called trey riel, grey or brown in color, with a strong odor and an intense flavor. It is used both as a condiment and as a main element in a variety of Khmer dishes, and it accounts for a large portion of protein in the Khmer diet.

Common Cuisine you may want to try while in Cambodia:

  • Amok (Coconut fish curry)
  • Kuy teav (Noodle soup)
  • Nom Banh Chok (Khmer noodles)
  • Samlar machu (Sour soup)
  • Kampot Pepper Crab
  • Lap Khmer (Beef salad)
  • Samlar kari (Chicken curry)