What do you find hardest about Cambodian culture?

When talk about culture neither is wrong, right, better or worse. Culture gives us a set of tools to easily and sometimes automatically negotiate social situations, able to make quick judgements and accurate predictions, bypass long-winded communications because of an assumed understanding of the process and expectations.

However, when dealing with other cultures these tools are often robbed away, and this is what can cause stress and anxiety.

For me, there are a few things that cause me stress. First, it is the lack of planning. Things often happen seemingly spontaneously and without a huge amount of forewarning. There is an economic aspect to this; things happen when you can afford them. There was one time Vitou phoned me to ask if I was free. I told him I was, so he told me to pack clothes for three days as we were visiting his relatives.

British culture usually revolves around well-planned and confirmed events. This is also true of my school culture, it being an international school. Many social events among my expat friends are planned in advance s as well. I try to have one foot firmly rooted in my surrounding Cambodian culture; whilst the other in my British or international expat culture. It seems that the former foot is doing the foxtrot beat of slow, slow, quick, quick (no planning or activity until a rush at the last minute) while the latter leg is doing the quick, quick, slow of the polka (organise everything at first, then ease into the event later). With each foot moving to a different beat, it can make life somewhat complex.

I’ve learnt to prepare for this Cambodian pace by leaving my schedule free. However, this means often saying no to things I would otherwise go to due to the possibility something else might happen. Often, when people ask “do you have plans for the holidays” the answer is no, but in reality I know some plan will probably suddenly materialise. Generally, I cope quite well.

However, I don’t cope well when I’m stressed. If I’m already busy and my schedule is already packed or if some significant event is coming up, the thought that something might suddenly crop up our plans might change make me very anxious. I cope with stress by planning. I will plan things to the last detail and I need to know some days in advance how things will work out. This helps me feel in control of the situation. However, as Cambodians don’t plan, they inadvertently make situations worse for me.

As I gradually get more involved in Khmer life and my priorities move in that direction, hopefully scheduling conflicts and time of stress will reduce.

Another strong value in British culture is privacy and personal space. In Cambodia, especially as often many people live together sharing bedrooms and even beds, this it’s not often a priority. Vitou is very aware and helpful, and will often ensure my privacy is maintained at home. However, there are times when this cultural conflict can’t be escaped. There is one example that sticks clearly in my mind. I had just been shopping at Aeon Mall, of course. I had the day off as a school holiday but also forget it happened to be a Cambodian national holiday too. Therefore, Aeon Mall was exceptionally crowded. Because of this, shopping had been tiring and stressful. My capacity to deal with cultural conflicts was vastly diminished.

I left Aeon Mall, glad to be escaping, and at the exit I bumped into some Cambodian acquaintances. They literally pounced on my trolley and started peering into my bag, cataloguing everything I had bought and announcing it to the group. I can’t imagine that happening in England. Even if my parents had been shopping for anything other than the weekly groceries, I wouldn’t open their shopping bags to have a look.

One time in Siem Reap, I went out for the evening to get food. There was a group of tuk tuk driver that would wait on the corner of the road for customers, so I walked up and asked them to drop me off at Pub Street, where the restaurant was (I was friends with one of the waiters there). The next day, I went to the shop just opposite where I lived, and the shopkeeper, who I also had conversations with regularly, asked if I enjoyed Pub Street the night before. The whole neighbourhood knows your comings and goings, which makes me very careful on the reputation I try to make for myself in my borey.

Another area where my idea of privacy is often invaded surrounds prices of things. In UK, you would rarely directly ask the price of something. In Cambodia, it happens a lot. People ask about clothes, motorbikes, rent, everything. To a British person, that’s personal information. Here, it’s acceptable public knowledge. The next stage can be a bit annoying, when they evaluate whether you got a good price or not. It’s not so bad if they think it’s a good price. To be told it’s too expensive comes across as rude. (That’s okay to do before the point of purchase; it’s of no use after and seems to only serve to undermine the person who bought it.)

If I get asked the price of something, I will usually say that I can’t remember. That usually stops the conversation in its tracks.

I think the reason that this happens is that Cambodia is far more group orientated. Therefore things happen together, so privacy gets put aside as a result. Things happen together, you live in close proximity to each other, communities have the proverbial grape vine running down each street, so naturally your business becomes everyone else’s business.

This might seem like a bit of a rant, but it isn’t. I know I’m extremely blessed to be here. If my main gripes are that people invite me to things (how very dare they) a bit last minute, or they show an interest in this stranger that has landed in among them or they are asking questions a quick google search could probably answer about prices, then I don’t have a lot to complain about. I love so much about Cambodian culture and the people here. I’m also glad for the opportunity to put a mirror up against my own values and beliefs and examine where they come from or why they’re like that. So, come to Cambodia; just expect things to be last minute and for everyone to be very curious about you.

Communicating with Brits

This subject is possibly getting tedious, so I apologise. I know I have mentioned it previously and I probably will again. One of the most difficult areas of communication is with non-British English speakers. We are, indeed, divided by a common language.

I love reflecting on my British culture and how it has shaped me. Living in a foreign country highlights the differences and nuances of your culture that you normally take for granted. You also have to negotiate your own values and how they fit into your new setting. It’s helpful to know about your own culture as well as the ones you are interacting with. You are better able to pin-point why you respond to certain situations and why you feel the way you do.

Remember, with culture and any of these points, it is highly contextual and varies significantly from situation to situation and person to person. These are broad brushstrokes. It is a bit of a long read, so I have provided a summary at the end. Feel free to skip to it, but it may lose some of the nuance.

Privacy and personal boundaries

Two of the highest values in British culture is the sense of privacy and a need to respect personal boundaries. For example, when I told a Brazilian that no one talks to one another on public transport, he asked why were we so unfriendly. Actually, for Brits, that is being friendly. We assume the other passengers wish to maintain their personal space so we do not invade it. A small smile might be all you get and even that is a rare occurrence.

Therefore, you must be aware of this when communicating with British people. British people may not want to share details about something with you. Also as a result, English people may ask fewer questions about something and not seem interested. They are probably interested, but don’t want to seem nosy.

Indirect communication

Communication in Britain can seem direct at times, but there will be a lot of indirect communication that goes alongside it that can easily be missed.

The implied meaning of words are extremely important. In fact, you can assume that any implied meaning is the actual intended meaning. Therefore, you have to be careful that there aren’t any unpalatable implied meanings behind what you say. Sometimes, our indirect communication goes as far to say the opposite to what we actually mean. One perfect example is the phrase, “I’ll think about it.” We say that when the only thinking we will be doing is reflecting on what a ridiculous suggestion it was. We’ve already made our minds up and we profoundly disagree. But we don’t want to insult you by telling you that.

You have to remember, this is not disingenuous and we are not lying as those not familiar with British culture might assume. A British person being told, “I’ll think about it,” knows perfectly well what it means. We just forget that those from other cultures (especially when English is their first language) will not pick up on the contextual cues that go with it.

Taboos

There are certain subjects that are embarrassing and difficult to discuss. These are some of them:

  • Money
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Personal relationships

You need to tread carefully when negotiating these subjects.

Practical tips

So, there are various ways to navigate these aspects of communication though.

When starting a conversation, ask general questions that don’t ask for details. Remember, you need to respect the other person’s privacy and personal boundaries. Some examples include, “Do you have any plans this weekend?” as opposed to “What are you doing this weekend?”; “Did you have a good holiday?” or “How was your holiday?” rather than “What did you do on your holiday?” The first type of questions allows your conversation partner to be as vague or as detailed as they wish. The second type of question traps your conversation partner into giving details they may not actually want to give. (Also, “What are you doing this weekend?” is usually reserved as a precursor to making plans.)

So, this becomes a bit of a dance, where meaningless fillers replace actual meaningful questions. Remember, we are indirect communicators. The fillers are intended to move the conversation on, but in a non-invasive way. Then gradually, you work towards the details.

“How was your weekend?

“Not bad actually.”

“Oh, great.”

“Yes, we went to see my family.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, we took are kids to see their grandparents. We went to Corfe Castle for the day.”

“Sounds lovely.”

“Yes, we went to this amazing little pub nearby. The food was delicious.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, we had the Sunday roast. The beef was pretty much perfect. And the roast potatoes were lovely. We could have done with a bit more gravy though.”

If you want to broach any of the taboo subjects, you have to take extra care. Let’s say, for example, a British friend is wearing a particularly dashing piece of knitwear. (All Brits love knitwear.) You want to find out how much it was. The easiest way to find out is simply ask another question then provide the cues until you get the details you want. So, for example, the conversation would go like this:

“That’s a lovely cardigan. Where did you buy it?”

“Oh, it was £35 at Topshop.”

You might possibly note that the price was offered pretty much straight away. This often what happens, as the “Where did you buy it?” is often heard as a non-threatening “How much was it?” If it doesn’t work straight away, you could try these techniques:

  • Make a general comment about TopShop “Oh, I love the dresses in there.”
  • Tell them about what you bought there, “I got some lovely shoes there for about £50”.
  • Allude to the topic of money: “Topshop can be a bit expensive, but it’s usually worth the cost. Sometimes you can find real bargains too.”

Once they tell you the price, don’t criticise it: “Oh, that’s too much!” You will not be popular. The best response would be, “Oh, really? I love the colour.” You’ve got the information you want, then move off the awkward topic as quickly as possible.

If this doesn’t work, then there’s the “You don’t mind me asking how much it is?” which is where the speaker pretends to be asking for permission to ask a personal question by, in fact, asking the personal question. Usually, the British person will begrudgingly acquiesce and tell you.

Hearing “no”

British people will refuse a request or a suggestion as politely as possible. They will often make an excuse or use indirect communication. “I’ll get back to you” or “I’ll think about it” is often a no. In a case when making group decisions, ideas may be rejected by giving an alternative. For example

“Why don’t we go to Dominoes tonight?”

“What about TGI Friday’s?”

Alternatively, the British person may just agree for the sake of agreeing, even if it makes life difficult for them. Sometimes, it’s worth checking if that is the case.

Let them speak

British people often find talking loudly, effusively and interrupting inappropriate. In a group setting this can be difficult because the Brits sometimes go without an opportunity to speak up. There have been times that I’ve been in a meeting and I’ve been spoken over or not had an opportunity to raise a point. The subsequent silence does not usually mean that my point has been made, it probably means I’m livid.

Useful phrases

“I’m sorry to bother you…” This is used when asking questions or even when making complaints. I have walked up to information desks, where the person’s actual job is to answer my question, and apologised for interrupting them whilst all they were doing was waiting for someone to come and ask a question.

“I’m sorry but…” This phrase preludes any complaint, expression of annoyance or outright disagreement. You may raise the volume of what you are saying a notch and place a small amount of emphasis on the words. This means we’re getting serious.

“Oh, by the way…” This will signal the most important but also the most awkward part of a conversation. In order to minimise any emotional impact, we make it seem inconsequential and trivial.

“Oh, sorry.” If you bump into someone, interrupt someone, get in someone’s way or hold someone up, then say sorry.

Do what you want, we’ll just grit our teeth anyway

As British people don’t respond effusively to annoyances or complain you will get away with a lot. We may not like you or what you did as a result, but we will rarely tell you. So, you can easily ignore all these rules and carry on regardless. We’ll just grit our teeth and smile throughout.

Summary and other useful tips

  • Respect privacy and personal boundaries
  • Don’t force Brits to give details
  • Use filler phrases and filler questions to draw out more information
  • Avoid taboos: politics, religion and relationships
  • Brits will say “no” by offering alternatives
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Use “sorry” like confetti
  • Don’t make a complaint unless absolutely necessary
  • Don’t be too effusive or emotional
  • Don’t come across as arrogant
  • Be self-deprecating

Other resources

I’ll be writing a British culture vs. Cambodian culture post soon.