Myanmar – Doing Business

So last week we talked about some of the most basic norms and taboos involved in visiting Myanmar. This is a country for which we have an enormous affection and a collection of wonderful memories. We also encountered many challenges. Our advice is to enter the country with an open heart and mind. You will be greeted and treated with extraordinary grace, just try to reciprocate!

The first rule is that you must, MUST not express emotions in public. We are referring specifically to emotions like anger, exasperation or irritation. If you raise your voice, you will not only cause the person on the receiving end to completely shut down, but you will have lost the respect of anyone who witnesses the interaction. You may think that you hear yourself being “demanding and forceful, yet fair.” What they are hearing is a loud buffoon with no manners. Once your tone went up everything else that you said was discarded. This is true in any situation in the country, from the airport to a business lunch. If you have trouble reading people’s expressions take note: they are being polite. Try it.

The second rule is really one that applies anywhere, to anyone, but it bears repeating here. Do not force things. They are not going to say no, and may in fact say yes, but if they are not actually doing what you request, that means no. They are way too polite to contradict you, but may be caught between what their boss has said (don’t interrupt me) and what you are saying (I need to speak with your boss right now.) If you are told something like “Thank you so much for coming by” and ushered to the door, do not assume that the receptionist did not understand you. She or he did. But today you are not speaking with the boss. Accept that and move on. Raising your voice at this point leads you back to the buffoon in the previous paragraph.

Being “straightforward” and “direct” and “transparent” may be traits that are valued in Western business culture, especially American business culture, but they are NOT POLITE to Myanmar people. Again, we cannot reiterate enough that you will be forgiven for many things, but do you really want to spend the day insulting people and needing to be forgiven? Be open to learning new ways to be a good businessperson. Just because there is a shorter way to communicate something doesn’t make that better. Efficiency is not more important than feelings or manners in Myanmar. This means that you need to think before you speak. You also need to be very careful about criticizing or appearing to criticize someone in front of their colleagues. Our business culture allows for a lot of challenge and confrontation in conversations. Theirs does not. If you do need to set the record straight on something do it gently and in private.

Finally, negotiations are fluid, morphing things that involve a lot of seemingly unconnected conversational topics. You are being evaluated based on these conversations. If you demonstrate impatience, a lack of respect or a lack of openness with regard to discussing personal issues (like your family), you are working against your efforts to build trust. We were often surprised by very direct personal questions about husbands and children. Again, they are being polite and need to get comfortable describing your family and asking about theirs.

Once you have established trust you will find that everything can happen very quickly and easily. If you are having problems with this stage of doing business, simply think of it as an investment. We found that it is actually a wonderful experience to understand and appreciate the people that you are dealing with instead of concentrating specifically on “the bottom line.” When under pressure to reach an agreement quickly, it can get very stressful, but including your Myanmar colleagues in your stress is not going to help. Just try to enjoy the process. We learned a lot and you may too!

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