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Lasting Impressions

We are constantly told that first impressions play a crucial role in setting the right tone for our business dealings. However depending on where you are in the world, and who you are dealing with, greetings take on different shapes and forms due to cultural, societal and generational factors. Taking time to learn and understand your clients’ business culture can greatly benefit your future dealings, and greetings are no exception. Cambodia is now home to any number of different nationalities doing business, from strictly formal East Asian cultures to the more relaxed dealings of the West. As such, it is increasingly important to be aware of the different types of business greetings used in Cambodia, with good first impressions as vital as ever.


Chanra Sir is Operations Director at DNAK Trading Co. Ltd and Digby’s Grocer & Café. She is Cambodian.

The Cambodian sampeah is used both as a symbol of prayer and as a greeting: a sign of respect and politeness or a way to say thank you or to apologise. When greeting someone who is considered a peer, hands are pressed together in prayer in front of chest. The higher your hands are in relation to your forehead and the lower you bow, the more respect you are showing. These days, except when greeting elders or public officials, Cambodians incorporate Western culture in their greetings by doing a sampeah first, followed by a handshake.

As Cambodia is a hierarchical culture, respect and deference must always be shown to the most senior person. If groups are involved, we should introduce people according to rank so that our Cambodian counterparts understand the dynamics of the group.

Handshakes are normal, although be careful not to be too firm as this may be construed as aggressive. If men are dealing with women, they should wait and see if the female counterpart extends her hand before doing so themselves. Eye contact should be kept to a minimum as looking directly at another person’s eyes is considered rude. Cambodians address people with the honorific title ‘Lok’ for a man and ‘Lok Srey’ for a woman, with the first name alone or both the first and surnames.

Business cards should be exchanged after initial introductions. Have the flipside of your card translated into Khmer if possible, and present the card so the Khmer side is first read by the recipient. Use the right hand or both hands when offering or receiving a business card. It is important to treat business cards with respect as the way we handle the card is indicative of the way we will treat the person.

“ Cambodians incorporate Western culture in their greetings by doing a sampeah first, followed by a handshake. ”

– Chanra Sir, Operations Director,

DNAK Trading Co. Ltd / Digby’s Grocer & Café

Small talk should always be employed at the beginning of meetings. Cambodians are very indirect communicators so some reading between the lines is a necessary skill. In fact, if Cambodians disagree with a person or idea, they would rather remain silent than make any comment. If unsure about statements, be sure to double check by asking. Cambodians prefer ideas to be brought forward in a gentle way and to wait for others to respond. Pushy, pressured or boastful communication styles are a real turn-off.

Non-verbal behaviour is important to be aware of. For example, smiling in Cambodia is situational and can have many meanings; it may mean a person does not understand what has been said, or that they are nervous or even irritated. Showing emotions is considered negative behaviour: a sign of weakness as well as poor manners. Modesty and humility are emphasized in the culture, so compliments and praise are generally responded to by a deprecating comment.

Eigo Takechi has been the manager of Tama Hotel and The D22 for one and a half years. He is Japanese.

Japanese greetings are more polite than friendly. First, we exchange business cards; it is considered rude to skip that step. Japanese people don’t shake hands; they bow. There are three kinds of bow. When you acknowledge someone you know in passing it’s just a little bow. When you greet someone properly, the bow is 45 degrees. To apologise or say thank you, it is 90 degrees – a deep bow. The Japanese never hug or kiss.

After bowing and trading business cards, Japanese tend to get straight to the point with just a little small talk. When the meeting’s over, you thank them for coming and bow again. If you get in an elevator after the meeting, you bow, and remain bowing until the doors have closed, and then stand straight again. When in a business meeting in a restaurant, the youngest women need to serve drinks to everyone. If there are no women, then the youngest men do it.

“ When you greet someone properly, the bow is 45 degree. To apologise or say thank you, its 90 degrees. ”

– Eigo Takechi, Manager, Tama Hotel / D22

In general, the Japanese are not so straightforward; they don’t say when they dislike something. They are always very polite. They believe you should always wear a tie, a jacket and shiny shoes. Sit with your back straight, don’t cross your legs, and keep eye contact. Keep a lot of distance and personal space. It’s easy to offend the Japanese. The key is to remain polite and formal.

Zhengyu Ren works for Elionetwork Translation Agency and has been in management in Cambodia for four years. He is Chinese.

Chinese people mostly shake hands as a greeting, and there is a lot of emphasis on body language. In the case of a business meeting with Chinese clients, you need to consider your role in the meeting, plus the subject of the meeting. If you’re at an advantage, you can appear relaxed, but if you want something from someone, you need to appear humble, with lowered posture, speaking quietly, and looking up at the other person – you need to be clearly deferential.

Among Chinese, business deals are sometimes done in unusual places like saunas – it’s informal, but quite acceptable. Chinese culture is non-confrontational; people avoid straightforward expressions, yet at the same time we all know that to be straightforward is most efficient. Going to places like saunas, where people are naked, tends to soften the atmosphere and allow for smooth dealings.

When dealing with Chinese, your posture will have a great impact on your communications. Confidence can easily be mistaken for arrogance in Chinese culture – a typical American-style confidence, for example, could be seen as arrogance. The staunch and casual posturing that is more typical of Westerners would be inappropriate for a Chinese businessman. You want to make yourself smaller, and more sincere.

“Among Chinese, business deals are sometimes done in unusual places like sauna.”

– Zhengyu Ren, Manager, Elionetwork Translation Agency

Bowing or making a sampeah isn’t appropriate among Chinese: people will think you’re a monk. In a business context, Cambodians sometimes ask questions such as how much money I make, which I find inappropriate. I’ve heard Cambodians say that Chinese businessmen can come across as harsh and arrogant.

The Chinese like to small talk a lot: sometimes annoyingly so. However, it is strategic – it helps us understand the mood and interests of the other person and allows you to build some kind of connection, facilitating smoother business dealings. Talking about cars, property prices or children for two hours is normal. The real issue may only be discussed for ten minutes, and after the small talk has subsided.

The Chinese also love compliments – and they can be shamelessly over the top. Chinese people exaggerate and even make things up, but everyone knows that is part of the culture so they bear that in mind and don’t believe everything. If you don’t know the culture, you may judge them as liars. People aren’t trying to trick you – that’s just the culture. Chinese people find it very hard to say no, even if they’re not interested. Generally, they’re totally non-confrontational. Also, words are not literal or binding in Chinese business culture. It’s acceptable to go back on a verbal agreement if there’s been no deposit, and people won’t even feel guilty about it.

Weh Yeoh is the Managing Director of OIC: The Cambodia Project. He has three years of management experience in Cambodia. He is Australian.

Australians get off our chairs when someone enters the room. We would first always go in for the handshake. Australians place a lot of importance in the quality of the grasp – no-one likes a dead fish handshake! Grip strength is important: you have to be strong, but not too strong. Make sure you go into the handshake with the palm facing up instead of down, as a downward facing palm is seen as arrogant. What’s different to Asian culture is that we don’t always pull out the business card immediately.

Open up the conversation with a little bit of small talk about the weather, the coffee in the café that you’re sitting in, or the cricket (the scores in the sport, or the taste of the insect) in order to initiate some element of bonding. But the conversation should get to the point relatively quickly – and after business is done, move on to something that is off-topic. Keeping your word is very important when dealing with Australians. As such, you often don’t need a written document or contract: giving your word is just as good, and you will be judged by how true you are to your word.

“ Australians place a lot of importance in the quality of the grasp – no one likes a dead fish handhake! ”

– Weh Yeoh, Managing Director, IOC: The Cambodian Project

It would be inappropriate not to call someone by their first name. Being too formal is impolite: it’s seen as putting up barriers. In Australia, they might even use the word ‘mate,’ which is similar to friend and even less formal. Ask about their family, use a little bit of humour – it can even be the kind of humour that other cultures would consider inappropriate during business dealings.

Australians have an emphasis on timeliness and punctuality: you shouldn’t be late for a meeting or stretch out something over an unnecessary period of time. Meetings in Cambodia last two or three hours, but in Australia they last one hour maximum. We have to get the heart of the meeting out of the way, then worry about socialising afterward.

Contrasting with business cultures that are all about face, ceremony and over-the-top compliments – the Chinese used to call me the best physiotherapist in the world, even though I had not practiced for eight years – Australians roll their eyes at grandiose and dishonest statements.

Words and photograph by Eve Watling