Culture Profile: Cambodia

Guest Mark Fender lived in Cambodia for 12 years, and worked as Country Director for Food For The Hungry. 


Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 3.46.43 PM  What does honor and shame look like in Cambodia?

Probably the most important element in engaging in Cambodian social relationships is understanding where you fit in the social web – who’s older, richer, and more important…and who’s not. That has profound implications even on how you speak. Cambodian pronouns are basically not marked for gender and number, but marked for status. Even common verbs like “eat” have different forms based on the status of the person doing the eating! This desire to understand “who-I-am-in-relationship-to-you” drives the nature of personal introductions. Cambodians ask early on about how old you are, and how much money you make. Part of this is personal curiosity on the part of the person asking, but there’s also a sense of “how important are you?” so can we relate in the social hierarchy. Conflict is generally dealt with (or not dealt with!) under the surface. Communication is much more indirect than direct. Getting “honest and open feedback” can be enormously difficult.

What is the cultural orientation of Khmer culture, based on TheCultureTest.com?

9% guilt, 63% shame, and 28% fear (based on 30 results).

An honor-shame story?

When I was doing language learning, I frequently visited a nearby local market. There were a couple times when, in my speaking and social engagement with sellers in the market, I would say or do something that was inappropriate and offensive. Even in retrospect, though, these do not seem like major things to me. But I had one person who just refused to speak with me after I had offended her! I guess I had “crossed a line” and there was just no going back for her.

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 8.47.16 PM

What Khmer words communicate honor-shame? 

“Face” is definitely used. You can “keep face” for other people by not doing something that might publicly humiliate them. Being “shame faced” is something that people want to avoid. “Feeling guilty” is rarely used!

How do you address honor and shame biblically?

I think there’s a delicate balance between respecting the culture (as a guest within the Cambodian context) and appropriately challenging the culture. One area where this is especially relevant is dealing with conflict or tension. As a Westerner, I believe that denying and hiding conflict is ultimately unhealthy and unproductive. I have a tendency to want to get it out in the open. There is probably some truth to that, but it may be very uncomfortable to my Cambodian colleagues. So, I need to encourage them to deal with conflict and tension in healthy and productive ways – which may require more dialogue than they are comfortable with, but probably does not require a “get it all out on the table” approach that I might take.

What one advice would you give a newcomers to Cambodia?

Recognize that the social hierarchy, with its attendant elements of honor and shame, is the social reality for Cambodian people. You might dislike it, you might not understand it, you might desire to change it. But, for now at least, it is the defining reality for Cambodian social life.

Previous posts: The 5 Types of Honor-Shame Cultures | Culture Profile:Botswana

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One comment on “Culture Profile: Cambodia
  1. Kevin says:

    Very helpful. Many struggles trying to help Khmer people who routinely are deceptive or not forthcoming with the truth. How can you address this significant growth issue if it is consider losing face in Khmer culture?

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