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Crossing the cultural divide

Crossing the cultural divide


HR ADVICE

One of the features of Cambodia's working environment is the presence of many expatriates from across the world including other Asian countries.  

This mixing of cultures is one of the great things about working in Cambodia. Each culture brings their own attitudes, ideas and experiences to the workplace, which combine to produce a uniquely Cambodian workplace culture. Many Cambodians and expatriates feel they benefit tremendously from being exposed to different ways of doing things.  For our Cambodian workforce and our economy, it gives us a positive advantage in terms of working in a globalised world.  

For many Cambodians entering the workforce for the first time, previous dealings with Westerners might be fairly limited. Similarly, many Western expatriates working in Cambodia have never worked in an Asian country before.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that both sides experience their share of frustrations and misunderstandings when dealing with each other. After all, interpersonal relationships at work can be complex at the best of times, let alone when people come together from very different cultures and backgrounds.

Interacting successfully with people from other cultures does not mean that we leave our own culture at the front door when we come to work. Workplace diversity should be celebrated, not ignored. We need to recognise and appreciate our cultural differences and to understand how they impact on the work environment.

So, what are some of the main challenges that Cambodians and expatriates face?

Language is an obvious source of potential misunderstanding. In a mixed cultural environment, conversations typically take place in English. While many Cambodian professionals speak English very well, there may be times when the precise meaning of what is being said is not fully understood. For example, if an expatriates manager says, "It would be good if you could do some research on this", they are actually saying, "Please do some research on this". However, a Cambodian might misinterpret this to mean they have the option of doing the research or not doing the research.

To avoid language misunderstandings, both sides need to think carefully about the way they express themselves and ensure understanding. Just as importantly, neither side should feel embarrassed about seeking clarification about what is being said. It is much better to spend a few minutes clarifying a request than to misunderstand the request altogether.

Another challenge stems from differences in our approach to discussions or debates. As in many Asian cultures, Cambodians tend to place a lot of value on reaching decisions by consensus and maintaining group harmony. In any debate, it is important that nobody "loses face". In contrast, Westerners tend to be more comfortable with vigorous debates where each party is seeking to win the argument. Whereas a Westerner might think saying, "I don't agree with you" or "I think you are wrong", is a reasonable statement to make, such blunt language may be interpreted by a Cambodian as a personal insult.

Similarly, many expats are used to environments with flat organizational structures and an egalitarian workplace culture - "we are all equal, even if you are my manager or I am your manager".

In contrast, Cambodians are more accustomed to strict hierarchies and observing formalities. As a result, an expat may come across to a Cambodian as being too informal or casual, which may make the Cambodian feel uncomfortable or offended. Also, a Cambodian may be more reluctant to disagree with their manager in situations where an expat would have no hesitation in doing so.

Despite our best efforts, there will be times when cultural misunderstandings will occur. It takes a long time to fully understand the intricacies of another culture, and sometimes it might feel as though we will never really understand how the other person thinks.  The important thing is not to get frustrated or to take offence too easily. Be patient and flexible in your dealings with people from other backgrounds, and always ask yourself, "How might my behaviour be perceived from that person's perspective?" 

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Sean Power is a consultant to HRINC, one of Cambodia’s leading HR services firms, and Sandra D’Amico is the managing director. A job isn’t just a job; it consumes more than a third of your day – make sure you enjoy what you do and challenge yourself to be creative and do things differently. Contact [email protected] for more information.

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