CUSTOMS, CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY OF THE CAMBODIAN PEOPLE

CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY OF THE CAMBODIAN PEOPLE

Cambodians have been described as passive, patient, resourceful, and superstitious. They live simply, eat simply, dress simply and are said to be swayed easily by rumors and hearsay. Despite the horrors and poverty that they have endured, they are remarkably kind, open and cheerful to visitors. Cultural norms have traditionally discouraged aggressiveness, anger and conflict.

Before 1970, Cambodians were regarded as a peaceful, friendly and gentle people. The Vietnamese had a reputation for being fighters but not the Cambodians. Alcoholism, crime, open conformation and conflict within communities were rare. People were held together by samaaki , the Cambodian sense of commitment to a common good and community spirit. Cambodia gentleness and warmth was undermined by the Khmer Rouge years to some degree but is still very much alive and is coming back.

Cambodian place a high value on education, respect for elders and community cooperation in villages. As is true with other Southeast Asians, they have a strongly developed sense of courtesy and respect. Important values include respect for elders, Buddhist beliefs, deep reverence of the royal family and loyalty to friends and family. Cambodians also have traditionally had a deep reverence of the royal family sort of like the Thais.

Cambodians have traditionally had a live for today attitude Time and schedules are treated lightly. Expressions that means “it doesn’t matter” are often used in the same way that Latin Americans use “manana .” One Cambodia man told the New Yorker, the Cambodian “doesn’t think ahead. He never had to. When he is hungry, he reaches up to the tree for fruit, into the water for fish and eats what he gets.”

Cambodians also have a reputation for not being very direct. Circumlocution is the norm. Many communicate using innuendo and metaphors that may be difficult for the uninitiated to pick up on. An aid worker told Vanity Fair, "In Cambodia there are always levels and levels—and then more levels—of intrigues and shadows." A 19th century French writer wrote that Cambodians had a tendency to “submerge deep differences inside surface similarities.”

Wittaya Supatanakul wrote in the Bangkok Post Cambodia has a small population but the people are not as hard-working or inquisitive as the Vietnamese. [Source: Bangkok Post September 22, 2007]

See Society

General Etiquette in Cambodian Society

Keo Mony wrote in in “General Etiquette in Cambodian Society,” a guide for health care providers in the U.S.: “Cambodians tend to smile or laugh in both positive and negative situations, thus, it should not automatically be considered as expressing happiness, agreement, amusement, embarrassment or ridicule. Great caution should be taken in interpreting a smile or laugh in order to avoid misunderstanding. Cambodians are considered shy, especially women. It is advisable that non-Cambodians consider this when trying to have a frank and open discussion with them. [Source: Keo Mony, General Etiquette in Cambodian Society, Sensitive Care Provider Issues, January 21, 2004 /\]

“Cambodians have experiences inconceivable suffering and violence during thirty years of brutal wars. Chronic mental illness has affected many Cambodians. But, culturally, Cambodians are unaccustomed to opening up and discussing their feelings, especially the men, as they think it would make them look weak. They also equate mental illness to craziness. The stigma from being branded as crazy is enormous. Thus, Cambodians are often reluctant to talk about their experiences and their related illnesses. /\

“Cambodians tend to fear those in authority. Culturally, the fear is taught very early starting within the family. Children are taught to obey at home as well as school. At home, they are not allowed to challenge the authority of their parents, especially the father. Cambodian society remains very male dominated. At school, teachers are not to be challenged. And later at work, bosses are the authority. Obedience is the norm. In addition, kinds, foreign occupiers, and tyrannical leaders whose authority cannot be questioned have always ruled Cambodia. Punishment has always been swift and harsh for those who dare. The fear has been ingrained in many Cambodians for life.” /\

Buddhism, Confucianism, Anger and Smiling

Buddhism shapes character in Southeast Asia as Christianity does in Europe. Theravada Buddhism encourages its practitioners to keep their emotions and passions in check and stresses karma over determination, which often means people are more willing to accept their lot in life and is sometimes is viewed by Westerners as a lack of ambition or unwillingness to work hard to improve their positions in life.

Behavior and ideas about respect and society are also shaped in some ways by Confucianism. Traditional Confucian values include love and respect for the family, integrity, loyalty, honesty, humility, industriousness, respect for elders, patience, persistence, hard work, friendship, commitment to education, belief in order and stability, emphasis on obligations to the community rather just individual rights and preference for consultation rather then open confrontation.

Cambodians and other Southeast Asians generally don’t like confrontation and rarely show visible signs of anger. They have traditionally valued cool-headedness, placidity and soft words. Outward expressions of anger are considered boorish and crude. Southeast Asians rarely loose their temper and if they do it doesn’t help them get their way. People just think they are crazy. Anger is usually expressed through a third person so face to face confrontation is avoided.

Southeast Asians smile a lot. Smiles are often a genuine way of expressing happiness and friendliness but they can also be a way of masking true emotions. People from Southeast Asia often smile or laugh when they hear bad news. That is how they hide their sorrow. As a rule, feelings are not expressed directly. Showing disappointment in public is especially frowned upon.

Loss of Face and Saying No

In Asia, it has been said that "face is more important than truth or justice" and losing face is often an individual’s greatest fear. Face is essentially respect in a community and is a crucial underpinning of society. Loss of that respect threatens the relations of individuals with almost everyone in his or her world and is hard to get back once lost and thus is avoided at all costs.

Maintaining dignity and avoiding embarrassment is at the heart of maintaining face. Some people describe the West as a guilt-based society where people's behavior is dictated by their personal hang-ups. Cambodia and other Asian societies, on the other hand, are often described as shame-based society, in which behavior is often defined by fear of losing face. It is considered very bad taste to publically criticize a person since it results in a loss of face within the community. Necessary criticisms and suggestions should be made in way the that no one is blamed and shame is not cast upon any individual.

Cambodians and other Southeast Asians consider it rude to say "no" directly. They often say something like "maybe," "I am busy," or even "yes" when they really mean "no," or convey a no answer in way that foreigners don't understand. This behavior sometimes causes confusion with Westerners who like a "yes" or "no" answer, and who tend to believe there is a possibility of a "yes" unless they are told "no" straight out.

Dark Side of Cambodian Character

Barbara Crossette wrote in the New York Times that Cambodia is an country of “Buddhist piety, royalist loyalty, artistic brilliance...and inexplicably deep strains of human cruelty and venality." The Cambodian dark side was most graphically displayed in the Khmer Rouge years are remains alive in the form of exploitation of the weak and poor by the rich and strong, high crime rates, mob justice and political violence. Outsiders have been ostracized, children have been sold off as sex slaves and no one has does anything about it or has been too afraid to. It has been suggested that the Asian propensity to hold in anger in might be at the corse of this problem.

The younger generation is regarded as not as polite and gentle as their parents. The influence of modern urban culture has been said to have given young Southeast Asians a rougher, meaner, more street-wise sensibility.

On the surface people are smiling god-natured and friendly but is not always clear how sincere and genuine they are.

Khmer Rouge Years and Character

The Khmer Rouge years changed Cambodians and left them to varying degrees shell shocked, suspicious, and with a twisted their sense of right and wrong. Cambodia is a place where police and soldiers commit crimes; teachers take bribes; and monks, judges and doctors are sometimes not really sure what they are doing because their teachers were murdered. One survivor of the Khmer Rouge years told Henry Kamm in Report from a Stricken Land , "The Cambodian no longer exits. Another animal, yes, animal, which I cannot recognize, has taken his place."

One aid worker told AP, "There is a survival mentality. Anything you can get away with, you do." Another aid worker said that people were taught to think only about the revolution and as a result learned to think only about themselves to survive. Even today, Cambodians often don’t trust one another. Some Cambodians compare themselves to the frog in the well, a reference to a popular Cambodian story about a frog that believes he is alone in the world, the sky is a small circle and he is one only who matters."

Many Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge years suffer in silence. Many do not to talk about what happened to them or feel their experiences are similar to what other Cambodians endured and are not significant enough to mention. Most prefer just to try and forget and move on.

Greetings in Cambodia

A short bow with the hands clasped is the most common form of greeting and way of saying good-bye. It involves placing ones hands together in a prayer position between the chest level and nose level but not touching the body and bowing slightly. The higher the hands the greater the sign of respect. The bow is slight and usually accompanied by a slight bend of the knees and a smile. The hands should never be held above the level of the nose.

Keo Mony wrote in “General Etiquette in Cambodian Society,” a guide for health care providers in the U.S.: “Cambodians traditionally greet each other with palms together, in a manner of prayer. They lift up their hands to the chest level and bow slightly. This is called Som Pas. In general, the higher the hands and lower the bow, the more respect is being shown. When meeting, Cambodians will Som Pas and say Choum Reap Sur (Hello). When departing, again they will Som Pas and say Choum Reap Lir(Goodbye). 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. [Source: Keo Mony, General Etiquette in Cambodian Society, Sensitive Care Provider Issues, January 21, 2004 /\]

This style of bow is used throughout the Buddhist areas of Southeast Asia. It is not only a greeting but is also an expression of thanks or respect. The bow is particularly important as a way of showing respect towards people of higher status or age. If two people of unequal status meet, the bow should be initiated by the person of lower status (i.e. the one who is younger, of lower income, of lower position, or a women meeting a man). Bows should not be used with children. Simply say “Hi” to them. Many Southeast Asians are comfortable shaking hands with Westerners.

Southeast Asians address each other by their first names, prefaced by the equivalent of Mr. or Mrs., Miss, or title such as Dr., Teacher or Professor. Titles are important and last names are often omitted. Young people often call older people they know well “Mr. Uncle” or “Mrs. Aunt.” Many people have nicknames.

Keo Mony wrote: “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. /\

“In an informal situation, Cambodians will refer to an older man as Ta (grandfather), Po (uncle) or Bang (brother) and to an older woman as Yeay (grandmother), Ming (aunt) or Bang Srey (sister). They are also widely used in a situation where one is not sure the age of other parties, in deference to one who may be the senior. In Cambodia, for a younger person to address an older individual without using a title would be considered rude or a form of misbehavior. For instance, a fifteen year-old boy will call his thirty year-old neighbor Sokha Po Sokha or Bang Sokha. People of the same age or younger can be called by their given name without the use of a title. The tradition has changed so that today, when people greet others in public they might use these titles to reflect differences in the social or professional class, and not only seniority or age.” /\

Southeast Asians often ask strangers questions about marriage and age almost immediately after meeting them They sometimes even ask how much money you earn. This is not necessarily meant to be nosy. Rather, it is important to know this information about someone to know the correct way to address them and bow to them.

Public Customs in Cambodia

Public displays of affection are frowned upon. Men and women rarely show affection in public. Even holding hands is frowned upon. However, men often hold hands with men and women hold hands with women. This is an expression of close friendship not a gay relationship.

When giving an object to someone you should use two hands or the right hand. Never use the left hand (sometimes associated with toilet duties). This is especially true when a younger person give something to an older person. Books and written material are treated with great reverence and should never be placed on the floor or slid across a table.

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. One should not touch a person's head, point his or her foot at a person or sacred object, place a hand on the back of chair in which someone is sitting, put feet on tables or chairs or touch anyone with his or her feet. If you accidently touch someone with your foot or touch their head, apologize profusely.

Pointing your foot at someone is like saying you are the lowest, dirtiest creature on earth. Don't pat a child on the head. Patting the head is disrespectful. Many Southeast Asian carry good luck charms in their shirt pockets instead of their pants pockets, because the higher up you go on the body the more sacred it is.

Wat (Temple) and Monk Etiquette

Keo Mony wrote in “General Etiquette in Cambodian Society,” a guide for health care providers in the U.S.: “Cambodians are predominantly Theravada Buddhist. Buddhist monks have played an important role in the Cambodian society. Monks often serve as the educators and counselors. The Wat is the center of community life. In Cambodia, most villages have a Wat. In the U.S., there is also Wat in many Cambodian communities. Some are just apartments converted into a Wat.” [Source: Keo Mony, General Etiquette in Cambodian Society, Sensitive Care Provider Issues, January 21, 2004 /\]

Here are some do's/don'ts when entering a Wat or interacting with a monk: 1) Shoes or sandals must be removed before entering a Wat regardless of one's status in the society; this includes the king. 2) Visitors should be appropriately attired. Men should wear shirts and pants; they should never go shirtless or in shorts. Women should not wear short skirts, low cut or open dresses that reveal the body, very colorful clothing or too much perfume. 3) Inside the Wat, visitors sit with legs bent and both feet tucked to the side, Som Pas and bow to the floor three times. 4) Women cannot touch a monk. If a woman wants to hand something to a monk, the object should be placed within reach of the monk, not handed directly to him. This restriction even applies to a monk’s mother.

5) Monks sit on a platform or raised seat above the laity. However, if there is no platform or raised seat, monks are also allowed to sit on the floor or mat, if they sit upon a pillow or folded blanket which symbolizes a higher seating. 6) Visitors always sit with their legs bent and feet tucked backward when the monks are seated. 7) Never stand when talking to seated monks. It shows grave disrespect. 8) A Buddha statue, well kept or in ruins, is a sacred object, so do not touch it or stand on the altar. 9) A monk can be addressed with “Venerable” followed by his first name or whole name (last and first). 10) Monks eat only breakfast and lunch, which have to be finished before noon. In the evening, monks are allowed to drink water, milk or tea. Any schedule or engagement should take this restriction into account. 11) Food intended for monks should not be tasted before the monks eat it.

Respect Towards Elders

Keo Mony wrote in “General Etiquette in Cambodian Society,” a guide for health care providers in the U.S.: “Cambodians demonstrate great respect toward their elders. This respect for elders is taught very early in life. In Cambodia even with so many changes, the respect of elders is still emphasized. In the U.S., on the contrary, the respect of elders seems to be declining, especially for the younger generation. Many parents are busy at work and children have less and less contact with other Cambodians. Westerners will be very appreciated and respected if they demonstrate respect toward the Cambodian elders. [Source: Keo Mony, General Etiquette in Cambodian Society, Sensitive Care Provider Issues, January 21, 2004 /\]

Here are some do's/don'ts when dealing with an elder: 1) The younger person always Som Pas an elder first. For example, a guest would Som Pas his/her elder host when entering the house, but a younger host would Som Pas a visiting elder first. 2) The younger individual should not sit elevated above an elder. Seating for the younger person should be at the same level or below the elder. To sit above the elder would be considered rude or misbehaved. Many homes in Cambodia as well as in the U.S. still use mats as well as chairs or couches. If an older person is sitting on a mat, it is impolite for a younger one to sit on a chair despite that he/she is told to do so. When sitting on a mat, the younger persons should bend their legs and tuck them to the side with both feet point backward. If sitting on a chair or couch, younger people should not cross or shake their legs.

3) When walking in front of or passing an elder, a younger individual should bow to show respect. The lower the bow the more respect is conveyed. 4) When accepting things from or handing things to an elder, the younger person has to do so with both hands. An elder will do so with only one hand. 5) The elder's head should not be touched or patted. Cambodian parents always tell their children not to touch or pat another person's head because it is a sin. 6) When standing or posing for a picture, a younger person never puts his/her hand on an elder's shoulder. It is considered very rude. 7) When talking, take off hats and don't put hands in pockets. 8) When eating, don't start before the elder.

Home Customs in Cambodia

It is customary to remove one's shoes or sandals when entering a private home. In homes raised off the ground, shoes or sandals are sometimes left at the stairs. Otherwise they are left outside the doorway. Keo Mony wrote in “General Etiquette in Cambodian Society”: Visitors should remove their shoes before entering. Although it is not compulsory, Cambodians always insist upon removing their shoes even if they are told not to do so by the host. It is to show respect. Hats should be removed. Cambodians wear hats for protection from the sun or rain rather than for style. It is disrespectful to wear hats inside a home. [Source: Keo Mony, General Etiquette in Cambodian Society, Sensitive Care Provider Issues, January 21, 2004 /\]

There often aren't any tables or chairs in a Cambodian home because the family spends most of its indoor non sleeping time sitting or lying on the floor. In a traditional home, one sits on low seats or cushions on the floor. Men may sit with legs crossed. Women often sit with legs bent off to one side.

Visitors are generally not invited to homes. It is not customary to bring a gift when visiting. Mony wrote:“Cambodians always offer drink such as water, tea or juice to their guests; sometimes food is also offered. To honor the host, the offer is accepted, even if the guest takes just a sip or a bite Some homes use beds or mats for receiving guests. If that is the case, visitors should sit by tucking their feet backward. It is impolite to cross or stretch legs. /\

Eating Customs in Cambodia

Southeast Asians eat with a fork in the left hand and a spoon in the right hand. Chopsticks are generally only used for noodles or Chinese food. In some places sticky rice is served in a ball and eaten with the fingers, which are cleaned with a napkin.

Southeast Asian like to eat in groups and sample many different dishes. The soup courses usually come first. Meat Dishes (and other dishes too) are often served in bite-size pieces in accordance with a Buddhist custom that no whole animal be cooked and served. People often alternate bites of rice with bites from the dishes and serve themselves many small serving rather than one large one. Guests may be served tea or fruit. It is impolite to refuse food or drink. One should at least take a taste.

In a traditional home, the meal is served while diners sit on a mat on the floor. As a sign of respect to a guest, the host and his family will not raise their heads above the head level of their guest. In some cases the food is brought by the hostess in a squatting position so she does not offend anyone.

Business Customs in Cambodia

See Economics, Business Customs

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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