cambodian culture

You are in Cambodia, and one afternoon you decide to take a brief outing. You are walking down on the riverfront and you stop to ask a Cambodian which direction it is to a particular restaurant someone has recommended to you. The Cambodian smiles politely at you, listens to your question and, still smiling, points you in a direction. After walking in the humidity and heat for twenty-five minutes and finally giving in, hailing a tuk-tuk, and finding out that the restaurant was only about two minutes in the completely opposite direction from where you had stopped to ask for directions, you are livid.

saving faceWhy did the seemingly friendly Cambodian lie to you and give you bad directions? Was it malicious? Did he not like foreigners? Was he trying to send you down a rabbit trail?

Probably not. More than likely, the Cambodian simply did not know the answer but did not want to “lose face” by admitting that he did not. Most Cambodians would rather act with confidence than risk embarrassment or lose the respect of others, even if it means sending you in the wrong direction.

The concept of “saving face” originates from China, but is has certainly spread to other cultures.82 Saving face refers to the maintaining of one’s reputation and standing in society.83 This means that in order to save face, you do everything to avoid embarrassment.

Since “saving face” is such an embedded part of the Cambodian culture, it is necessary to understand that it will impact your communication. It will be difficult to see where this practice is at work, but where you sense that someone may not be telling you something as it is, consider that it may not be from a malicious intent to lie, but an attempt to save face.
While it would be great to give you an easy “how-to” guide to communicating in a “saving face” culture, the reality is that it takes years to learn how to navigate communication, just as it takes years for a low-context communicator to learn how to communicate in a high-context communication society. We can give you a couple of pointers here, but be ready to be flexible, to be understanding, and to swallow your pride when you believe that you have been lied to and wronged.

The following suggestions will be helpful to keep in mind:

  • Avoid pointing out someone’s mistakes openly in front of their peers or strangers. If you believe that someone is in the wrong and needs to be corrected or assisted – for example, you are helping a staff person learn a new software or are tutoring a student in a subject – do not correct them in front of the rest of their peers. Instead, take them to the side and work with them to see how to complete the task correctly. They may still feel embarrassed in front of you, but you have at least eliminated their embarrassment in front of their peers and others.
  • Make sure to give sincere compliments when they are merited as it helps people to increase “face” in front of their peers.
  • Show extra respect to elders, military or other people of uniform.84

Navigating within a new culture, new language, and new people will bring daily stresses, frustrations, and will stretch you in new and different ways. Spend time in prayer today that God would specially prepare your heart for the challenges in communication that will likely arise during your trip.

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82 Peter Huang and Christopher J. Anderson, “A Psychology of Emotional Legal Decision Making: Revulsion and Saving Face in Legal Theory and Practice,” Minnesota Law Review, 90, 1045-1071 (2004).
83 Ibid.
84 Greg Rodgers, “The Concept of Saving Face: An Introduction to the Concept of Face in Asia,” About (2012), (accessed November 4, 2012).

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