How expats and locals can work together for success

06 July 2019
How expats and locals can work together for success

The expat experience in modern-day Myanmar is not all hearts and flowers, as a number of foreigners and locals will attest. But a book just released offers insight into how culture-clash can be avoided and both “sides” in a business endeavour could thrive.

When Global Meets Local: How Expatriates can Succeed in Myanmar was officially launched earlier this year at the Pansuriya Art Gallery on Bogalayzay Street.  The event was an opportunity to meet the author, Hana Bui, and take part in a discussion about intercultural communication in Myanmar.

Globally-speaking cultural conflicts are one of the largest challenges facing overseas managers in large international companies.  According to The Economist a survey of senior executives from 68 countries recently revealed that 90 percent see ‘cross-cultural leadership’ as one of the biggest management challenges of this century.  With this in mind, Bui’s book seeks to address some of the most pressing issues from a globally-Myanmar perspective. 

In a genre that’s full of colourful stories from other countries, this book contributes to understanding what’s unique about Myanmar culture, for its workforce and managers alike.  Holmes and Tangtongtavy’s book Working with the Thais (1997), for instance, was a classic that contained lots of anecdotes about typical foreigner faux pas in Thailand, like pointing or moving things with the feet or wai-ing (pray gesturing) to the wrong people.  Since its publication over 20 years ago, nothing comparable has been written about Myanmar.

A whole series of books have been written about work culture in Japan, Korea and other Asian countries, and many YouTube channels provide advice about working in China and South America.  The ‘Making Out’ series recently published a humorous book about Myanmar culture, but is more of a phrase book than a commentary on intercultural communication per se (or even dating for that matter).  Even with these types of popular resources, both in print and online, very few explore Myanmar culture.

As the country becomes more globally integrated, however, the need to understand Myanmar culture grows.  For many decades important data, such as those collected in travel guides and official global studies, have missed local perspectives on consumer behavior, cultural attitudes and beliefs.  Even Geert Hofstede’s famous ‘Cultural Dimensions’ surveys, for example, have yet to include the latest data on Myanmar.  

Data, Background and History

When Global Meets Local: How Expatriates can Succeed in Myanmar includes lots of interesting data.  Bui carried out surveys with over 100 expats and 50 local professionals working in Myanmar, followed up with 30 in-depth interviews.  Armed with this research the book outlines the two most important rules for social interactions, and the most common cultural conflicts in Myanmar workplaces.  These insights are presented through accessible and interesting accounts of day to day situations, supplemented with quotes and useful advice.

Before launching into a discussion of the research, Bui provides a very descriptive account of the importance of religion and social customs in Myanmar.  Though a multi-religious country, Buddhist philosophy plays an important part in shaping everyday behaviours – the five precepts of ‘Sila’ (no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct or using intoxicants) are observed by many Buddhists.  Stories of locals making donations to charity, helping foreigners and respecting elders help to give a context to conflicts at work.  With an emphasis on social harmony (or avoiding conflict), for example, many locals often sacrifice higher salaries to work in friendlier work environments.  Even in large international companies, not every local will be motivated to chase the almighty dollar (or kyat) as hard as the foreign manager.

Religiosity (including for Muslim, Christian and Hindu minorities) is also tied to respect for elders.  Monks, nuns, teachers, parents and bosses all embody traditional forms of authority, and are thus rarely criticized (at least publicly).  This can make things difficult for foreign managers, who may want to solicit feedback from their employees.  Without the right modes of address, employees will seldom offer advice to senior employees – given that this may lead to a ‘loss of face’.

Despite having studied Myanmar culture for many years, I have to confess that this is a mistake I also make from time to time.  I wholeheartedly agree with Bui that a collegial approach is best, where foreigners adopt a more involved management style, setting goals and monitoring progress, often on a daily basis.  The book examines lots of cases where things go wrong, but negative situations can also yield positive results – for example, by not drawing attention to an employee’s shortcomings when making mistakes, staff can be very appreciative of such cultural sensitivity and reward a foreigner with their loyalty.  So long as corrective feedback is communicated, having such a loyal Myanmar workforce can bring its own forms of satisfaction.  Reading about the examples in the book was instructive in this respect, and a good reminder that I’m not the only expat facing cultural challenges in The Golden Land.

Anadeh, or ‘Feeling Bad’

No book about Myanmar culture would be complete without a discussion of this important concept.  According to Bui ‘Anadeh … is a kind of behavioral philosophy underpinning daily interactions.  [It is] the desire to create and nurture positive relationships with other people’.  As many expats will know, Myanmar people will often go out of their way to please strangers, profusely apologize for making mistakes or try not to disappoint others.  This can be described as the feeling of anadeh.

My own interpretation is that, in such a high-context society, anadeh is a way of dealing with social anxiety.  It is similar to the term ‘kreng jai’ in Thailand, and again relates to saving face.  Examples of locals refusing requests or declining to respond to emails are explained in terms of anadeh – when an employee is not clear about something, for example, they may ‘feel bad’ that their lack of understanding will cause problems.  The boss will complain, get angry or – even worse – shout.  Rather than seek clarification (interpreted as potential criticism), employees may simply avoid discussion of ambiguous, unresolved matters with their boss.

Bui explains that even asking questions in the negative form (‘don’t you want to call?’, ‘aren’t you interested?’) can create uncertainty and give rise to feelings of anadeh.  Information about simple and easy to learn communication practices are very useful for avoiding these situations.  The solution is not only to use more simplified language, but to also understand the importance of employees’ work and family lives too; things which may give more contextual information about missed deadlines or emails.  Details about social commitments and holiday plans may seem a tad too personal for expat managers, but for locals they help build trust and a way of overcoming anadeh in the workplace.

In my own experience, anadeh can even be a topic of choice for Myanmar people when discussing their culture with foreigners.  Though the concept encapsulates long-held social taboos, a willingness to discuss anadeh with foreigners indicates a certain degree of trust.  It may also reflect a strong local curiosity about how things are done elsewhere.  This point is covered towards the end of the book, as it explores examples of many positive workplace interactions between foreigners and locals.  As things here continue to change at breakneck speed, it’s important to remember that this kind of learning can be a very enriching, two-way process.

Traumatic History, Future Generations

Another unique aspect of the book is the discussion of Myanmar’s recent history, and its impact on intergenerational work perspectives.  Drawing upon an interview with advertising repat Ko Maung, Bui discusses the differences in attitudes between Generation Y (born between 1980-1994), Generation Xers (1965-1994) and the current Millennials.  Decades of military rule, censorship and monetary devaluations have left many in the older generations with feelings of insecurity – not knowing where to find work, they ask themselves ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What should I do?’

Despite the rapid changes taking place in Myanmar, this sense of generational uncertainty is useful to understand.  Millennials may be more tech savvy and open to new jobs, but the bulk of the workforce is still composed of Generation X and Generation Y employees.  They may find it more difficult to adapt, despite many having worked overseas, feeling more ambivalence towards economic opportunities that they missed out on when they were younger.

Given that I am a Generation Xer I found this part of the book very interesting.  It’s an insight I had never read about anywhere else, despite (or maybe because of) having Myanmar friends my own age overseas.  Bui cites one of the few studies on Myanmar culture from the 2000s to show that Myanmar people indeed place a high value on avoiding uncertainty.  ‘Uncertainty avoidance’ – the extent to which people are (un)comfortable with changes in law, technology and religion – is measured at 90/100 in Myanmar.  The score is 26 points higher than the next country in the data set, Thailand; the average for South East Asia is just 50.

These kinds of studies have interesting implications for those engaging with the Myanmar workforce.  How to overcome uncertainty in employment, skills and training is a problem many managers will face.  Interestingly enough, the book suggests that advertising is one such industry that needs to adjust the most to these feelings of uncertainty.  In a world of Facebook and social media, it will be interesting to see how the space evolves in the coming years.

Parallel Paths, Decades Apart

The book’s author, Hana Bui, is originally from Vietnam and works as an intercultural trainer.  She has worked in a number of businesses, and has extensive experience consulting with local and international HR departments. Hana’s book ambitiously tries to bridge the cultural gap between Myanmar and the world, drawing upon both personal experience and her MA degree studies, which focused on Globalization and Communication issues in the UK.

Bui was present at the book launch for signings and answered questions about her research.  She thanked her consultant Werner Eggert, who helped with editing drafts and refining the book’s ideas.  Eggert, who is a journalist and trainer with Interlink Academy in Myanmar, led a discussion about intercultural communication issues to a mixed audience of locals and expats.

Chi Pham, a UNICEF representative from Vietnam, said she was reminded of the changes that took place in Vietnam in the late 1980s whilst reading the book.  Vietnam, a country isolated after almost two decades of isolation since the war, began opening up to the world when the US President Bill Clinton lifted a 19-year old trade embargo.  New consumer goods, foreign businesses and even tourists were oddities for many Vietnamese back then, as too were foreign customs and ways of doing business.

The comparison with Vietnam has also been made by Sean Turnell and Ha Vu in a report they authored for USAID last year, in relation to the financial services sector.  Though over two decades apart in their journey towards liberalization, it seems there are many parallels to note.  Bui’s background as a Vietnamese expat in Myanmar, in that respect, seems to inform her interest in this important topic.

When Global Meets Local

When Global Meets Local: How Expatriates can Succeed in Myanmar is available on Amazon, where it currently sits at number 6 in the category of ‘Central Asia Travel’ and 36 in ‘Business Conflict Resolution & Mediation’. The printed books are also sold in selected downtown bookshops in Yangon.

For anyone interested in learning about local customs and communication styles, and what locals find most baffling about foreigners, this book is worth reading.  How locals and foreigners misinterpret each other’s ‘strange behaviours’ is a topic many will find interesting, if amusing.  The book paves the way for future studies, which no doubt will soon follow – both from other aspiring authors, and through official research organizations.