LAO CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY
Lao people are regarded as frank, open, very friendly, caring, genuine, polite, generous and giving. They also possess a strongly developed sense of courtesy and respect. Everyone who adheres to the latter will receive a warm welcome. Loyalty to family and friends is very important.
The Laotians are fun loving people. The term muan means they have a proclivity for enjoying themselves. One way of earning merit during Buddhist ceremonies, which you would think would be rather dour and solemn affairs, is to participate in improvised play where men and women tease each other and make witty, sometime very overt, sexual allusions.
In Southeast Asia Lao people are sometimes considered low-class and uncouth. Laos is said to be the most laid-back of all the countries in Southeast Asia. It had been isolated from the outside world for almost two decades before it opened its doors allowing visitors to enter the country in early 1990s.
According to Laos-Guide-999.com: “The fact that most Lao people were brought up in extended families that required a high level of harmony, kindness, patience and readiness to help each other has made the Lao a generous, kind and soft hearted, tolerant and socialized people. Lao people tend to value privacy less highly than foreigners, partly because it’s a normal way of life in extended families, especially in the countryside where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Sometimes for those foreigners living here this can be a surprise, especially with what they might find are slightly personal questions and the fact everyone in their village knows all about their lives. [Source:Laos-Guide-999.com]
According to Culture Crossing: The Lao view of time tends to be quite relaxed throughout the country. People are often late and most things can take quite a bit of time to come to fruition. Patience is a major must. Most people give of their time freely and usually ask for the same in return. [Source: Culture Crossing]
Lao Communication Style and Displays of Emotion and Anger
According to Culture Crossing: Verbal communication tends to be non-confrontational and indirect. Many Laotians will offer you the response they assume you want to hear, regardless of their feelings or plans. Be prepared to receive seemingly contradictory information from different sources, and try to stay calm in these situations. [Source: Culture Crossing ||||]
Showing frustration with people in public does not usually win you any points. It may be more helpful to ask various simple yes/no questions of different people in order to put together a picture of the situation than to ask complicated how/why questions that may make someone uncomfortable. ||||
When there is a conflict, it is often resolved through an intermediary. Don’t expect to discuss the issue directly with the person who has taken offense. Once the problem has been resolved, the two parties can meet congenially without addressing the conflict. ||||
“Yes” does not always mean “yes” and “no” may be substituted for “maybe”, “possibly” or even “yes”. It’s best to pay attention to non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language.
Laotians tend to have various types of smiles. Some indicate pleasure while others embarrassment or even anger. See Thailand
Buddhism and Lao Mellowness
Buddhism defines the Laotian character. 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. This is sometimes is viewed by Westerners as a lack of ambition or unwillingness to work hard to improve one’s positions in life.
Laotians are famously relaxed. People don’t hurry and time doesn’t seem so important. It is not unusual to see people sleeping in offices. If you ask someone for help they will smile and say, “Sorry, we’re busy.” If you are insisant and pursue a matter aggressively, Laotians will agree and sympathize and tell you they will look into the matter and get back with you, but never do. Lao people like to say “too much work is bad for the brain” and have sympathy for people who “think too much.” Education isn’t pursued as aggressively in Laos as it is in other places in Asia.
Lao mellowness contrasts sharply with the more aggressiveness and businesslike tendencies of the Confucian Chinese and Vietnamese. There is a Lao prover that goes “Lao and Viet, like cat and dog.” The French used to say “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.” This is based on an Indo-Chinese proverb that goes: The Cambodians plant the rice. The Vietnamese harvest the rice. The Laotian listens to the rice grow.
Lethargy and Avoidance of Anger in Laos
Father Felippo de Marini, a 17th century Jesuit, wrote: “The Kingdom condemns to pay a fine without any other formality not only those who are so carried away by their anger as abuse and insult another, but also even those who show public contempt for others and who address them in too proud a manner.”
Bo pen nyang (“never mind” or “it doesn’t matter”) is a common Lao expression that characterizes the Lao feeling toward life. Life should be enjoyed at the moment; and problems should not be taken so seriously as to disrupt this enjoyment. Lao people don’t mind other doing work while they relax, which may partly explains how Laos has become so dependent on foreign aid.
The lethargy of the bureaucracy is understandable within the cultural context of Laos. As a peasant society at the lower end of the modernization scale, the LPDR has adopted few of the work routines associated with modern administration. Foreign aid administrators frequently point out that Laotian administrators have difficulty creating patterns or precedents, or learning from experience. Laotians are known for their light-hearted, easy-going manner. This bo pinh nyang (never mind--don't worry about it) attitude is reflected in the languid pace of administration. Official corruption has also been acknowledged as problematic. [Source: Library of Congress]
Bo Pehn Ngan
Bo pehn ngan is similar to the Thai idea of mai pen rai. According to the blog American Expat in Chiang Mai: In Thailand, it is impolite to get angry and loud about a problem. This is simply not done in Thailand, and an expat living here must learn the “Mai Pen Rai attitude” or else he will have a lot of problems. Mai Pen Rai is ultimately a philosophy of life: Bend with the wind, like a bamboo tree. And above all, keep smiling. The way to say this phrase is My (mai) – Pen – Rye (rhymes with “eye”),
Technically, Mai Pen Rai translates as “It’s nothing.” Truer definitions could be: “Never mind.” “It’s Cool.” “Don’t get mad, get glad.” “Take it easy.” “No worries.” “Oh well, I can’t do anything about it.” Also, if you say thank you in Thai language to a Thai, they are likely to respond with a Mai Pen Rai.
In your travels in Thailand, you are likely to see some kind of vehicle accident on the road (bad driving habits are a pretty big problem in this little Kingdom). Unlike in the West, you will not hear anyone screaming or yelling with a cop trying to calm things down. Instead, you are likely to see them talking in a very calm voice, with smiles and maybe even laughing with one another. Mai Pen Rai. It is the Thai belief that instead of frowning and making a fuss over what happened, they accept the mishap and whatever that has befallen them. Even if what happened may create a heavy burden on them, it is their thinking that it is better to just say Mai Pen Rai.
This is how Thais cope with the problems of life. If their bus breaks down and everybody has to get out and walk, Mai Pen Rai. It’s a big difference from what you would hear in a big American city if that happened. It is one of the Thai traits I truly admire, but it takes a bit getting used to for the newly arrived Western expat.
When your lunch noodles delivered by the Thai waitress is cold, it is better to first smile and then say Mai Pen Rai. Be very careful, because anger or making fuss about the situation is not accepted in Thailand. If you must have hot noodles, you have learn to say it in a way that is extremely nice, and with a big smile. That is how you get along in Thailand.
If you miss your flight, even if it is not your fault, Mai Pen Rai If you lose money in the stock market, Mai Pen Rai. Thais see things that happen to us in a very positive manner. And if an expat can adopt this attitude as well, they are bound to live happier and longer. If there is any phrase in the Thai language that best describes living in Thailand, it is Mai Pen Rai.
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.
”Face” is equated with honor. 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. In 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.
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.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, 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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014