Myanmar – The Golden Land

yanmar is frequently in the news these days as a result of the democratic political transition and lifting of some of the US sanctions. At ProDigna we have experience in the country; one of our founders lived there for a year and six months and taught several courses. So we thought that this might be a good moment to share a few notes from our experience in this wonderful, magical, baffling country.

We are going to post these in a series. This first post serves as a general introduction. Please understand that the people of Myanmar are ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse so any generalizations should be taken with a grain of salt. The point here is to give general impressions, not provide a guidebook for doing business. (Perhaps that will come later!)

Starting with general cultural norms and taboos, there are several that may be unexpected for Westerners. You will quickly notice that you should never touch someone with your left hand, or use your left hand for handing them anything, including money.You can use both hands, as when presenting a business card, or the right hand. For months after returning to the US we were shuffling wallet and keys between hands to pay at the grocery store with our right hand, to the puzzlement of the cashier. Also, one should always remove one’s shoes upon entering any office or home (and definitely a pagoda), unless specifically told otherwise. Be prepared to take your shoes off for business meetings….so no holes in the socks! And try to keep your feet acceptable in appearance as well. Ahem.

Another note on feet. Pointing your feet at people, meaning putting your feet up on a desk or table, is absolutely unacceptable. If there is an elderly person anywhere near your feet it is even worse. Just keep your feet clean, low and unshod. You can’t go wrong with that.

Another big one is about touching: never touch people around the head and shoulders – EVEN CHILDREN. Myanmar children are wonderfully charming and you will be SO tempted to ruffle their hair but don’t do it.

Both women and men are affectionate and will often grasp each other’s hands while having a conversation, but only within the sexes, not between them. Western men should NOT touch Myanmar women unless invited to do so, even to shake hands. In Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw women will normally extend their hands to shake, which you should take, but wait for them to cue you.Western women can shake hands with everyone. Also on shaking hands….don’t squeeze! You are not in Texas! Take the hand and hold it gently for a second and release, unless the other person starts a vigorous shaking, then, as always, follow their lead.

Myanmar people are extraordinarily forgiving and kind about mistakes made with these and other taboos, but if you can avoid embarrassment, it is always better.

As a quick segue to the next post – Doing Business – we will simply say that you need to practice your breathing and open your minds. Losing your temper in public is a very quick way to lose their respect forever. Events are not going to take place in the order that you would expect, with the speed which you would expect or as a result of the conversations which you try to initiate. You are a guest. Be graceful. You will learn how to accomplish things but you must learn, not impose. We made a lot of mistakes and were not always graceful, yet were always forgiven. Try to do better than we did!

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