Cambodians communicate in a high context, non linear nature. This was one of the things that took me awhile to get used to during my stay in Takeo. Although, I was born and raised in a very similar culture, I’ve been in the U.S. for over ten years now and I’m used to the low context, linear communication style. I’ve actually learned to respect the Cambodian communication style in a way because it is all about showing respect to those you’re communicating with. Even if what you’re saying is wrong or the other person doesn’t agree with you, a Cambodian would never tell you that to your face. They would simply smile and agree with you even though they don’t feel comfortable with your statement.
I’ve encountered this with Cambodians of all ages, some of the staff I’m working with at NFO and even the children who live at the center. Last semester for one of my Multinational Communication class assignments, I read a book by Craig Storti called “Speaking of India” in which the author explains the differences between the Western and Easter communication styles. Thanks to this book, I was able to understand what the high context communication style entailed.
For example, Cambodians tend to reply with a “yes” to everything. Usually, it’s easy to understand what they truly want to say by reading their nonverbal expressions. Staring at people is considered normal, especially if they know you are a foreigner. There were many time when I was having lunch at the market and people would just come and stay around the table and watch me eat. I have to say at first I was really uncomfortable, but after a while I got so used to it that I would just simply start talking to them or smile back at them. I also noticed, that people tend to look away when talking to you, eye contact is perceived as intimidating, especially when it comes to two people from different sex. Monks are not allowed to touch women and even in situations when I had to talk to them, they would not look at me in the eyes. Sometimes even if they spoke English, they would not ask me questions directly, they would sometimes ask the teacher and the teacher would then reply to them.
It has been such a wonderful experience to immerse myself in a culture so different than mine and learn to accept it. I wonder if it will be difficult to adapt to the western communication style once I get back home. It’s always interesting to see how one’s body and mind can so easily get used to a whole different culture or even a lifestyle in such a short period of time.
Here’s a picture of me with the entire NFO staff at our center. Although the staff is Khmer the organization’s trustees are all westerners.