Myanmar/Burma & ASEAN, Part II
The global consulting firm McKinsey calls Myanmar “one of the few remaining largely untapped markets in the world.” But for those of us who simply love mysterious Myanmar (formerly Burma) for being one of the most fascinating nations worldwide, it is “the land of the pagodas.”
The past year was significant for Myanmar as the country Chaired ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) and they held their first census since 1983. I recently visited Myanmar at the invitation of the Women’s Forum Myanmar–ASEAN 2014 and participated in this wonderful Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society. The focus was on ‘Building the Future with Women’s Vision’ with events held in both Yangon and the country capital, Naypyidaw (for pronunciation, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zZ2CyAnYHw). What delighted me most about being in Myanmar was the opportunity to become immersed in the culture of this mysterious (to most) country and meet its polite and welcoming people.
For those of you interested in visiting Myanmar, either in a business context or as a new vacation spot now that the country has opened up to the West, here are some cultural insights. These will impact your interactions and demonstrate your good manners and intercultural understanding if you seek to develop long lasting relationships—business or personal:
- 1. Belief Systems, Philosophies and Religions: The Myanmar society continues to be built on order, respect of elders and their Buddhist faith. Keep in mind that the country breakdown is Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3% Roman Catholic 1%), Islam 4%, Animist 1%, Other 2%.
- 2. Meetings: First and second meetings are the time for introductions with Ministry officials, and for building trust. The Myanmar place a strong emphasis on chemistry between business partners.
- 3. Greetings: Although Men greet each other by shaking hands, women are frequently greeted with a smile and a nod. If a Myanmar businesswoman offers her hand first, it is acceptable to shake it; Western men should not offer their hand to a Myanmar woman until she does so.
- 4. Appearance: Despite the heat and humidity, professional business dress was worn at all my meetings, including first meetings, contract signings, and official events. In less formal situations, businessmen wore an open collar, light-colored shirt and dark slacks. The women all dressed beautifully and modestly, covering arms, legs and décolleté. In some offices it is common to remove shoes, so men should choose socks accordingly! Expect Ministers and local businessmen to wear Longyi and Mandarin collar shirts. My colleague from Sanofi attended a Myanmar wedding and returned to the ASEAN conference wearing this traditional, beautiful Burmese dress (see photo of the two of us below):
- 5. Dining Etiquette: Most business entertaining takes place in hotels, tea houses and restaurants. Until recently, it was illegal for international visitors to be invited into a Myanmar home. At business meals, the most junior host will begin serving guests first. I found that while forks, spoons and chopsticks were provided, knives were not, even though we were in a Western hotel.
- 6. Currency: The Kyat (MMK) pronounced chat is divided into 100 pyas. Myanmar is still a heavily cash-based economy. It is true that you must bring only bills that are freshly minted as U.S. dollars with small tears or folds will be refused. Bring larger bills such as $50 and $100 and twice as much money as you think you will need. The ATMs in Myanmar did not dispense funds and charged my account $9.95 for each attempt to withdraw money. I suspect the Myanmar banking system will continue to improve, along with their infrastructure.
In Summary: Even though Myanmar is open for global trade, the country’s business professionals are apprehensive about doing business with international visitors, for fear of becoming too Westernized. They will greatly appreciate your knowledge and respect for their unique culture and Myanmar customs.
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International Protocol Links
Myanmar/Burma & The French Connection, Part I
One of the most surprising things I discovered on my recent trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma) was the depth of the country’s association with the French. A quick dip into the history books showed that this relationship has been in existence since the early 18th century. It was only the pressing nature of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars that allowed Britain to gain a stronghold in the country so that Burma became a British colony.
Bringing us back to today, however, an interview in The Irrawaddy with the France Ambassador to Myanmar, Thierry Mathou reveals the large number of French citizens living in Myanmar.
The need for intercultural awareness has become increasingly crucial for successful global business travelers – so how do the cultures of France and Myanmar cooperate so effectively? Here’s my insight, developed while observing culture, doing business in Myanmar and writing my book Access to Asia in which I stress the importance of building trust, inspiring respect and creating long lasting business relationships across cultures:
The trust that the French have built in Myanmar has been developed through the following activities:
- 1. French visitors are the country’s most numerous European tourists;
- 2. Sixty five percent more French citizens have moved to Myanmar in 2013 than the previous year;
- 3. President U Thein Sein visited Paris in 2012, the inaugural visit by a Myanmar head of state to France. Other bilateral visits have occurred and are planned;
- 4. Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2012 visit to France was her first overseas trip since release from house arrest;
- 5. France engages with Myanmar in positive ways through their involvement in the economy, education, health and cultural events and also helps promote democracy and human rights.
How much easier it is to have confidence in one’s partners and develop a strong intercultural bond with them when, like the French in Myanmar, they show this kind of ongoing commitment and reliability.
Many major French companies have established a presence in Myanmar, including one of the world’s leading hotel operators, Accor; the beauty giant L’Oreal; and engineering organization Technip. This not only helps to demonstrate French willingness to invest in Myanmar but exposes high-quality French brands across the country. On top of that, French oil company Total is now held in high esteem internationally for its Socio-Economic Program. France’s long history of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has inspired the respect of the Myanmar people.
Creating Long Lasting Business Relationships:
As mentioned earlier, the French have long-standing ties in Myanmar, having established a shipyard at the port city of Syriam (now known as Thanlyin) way back in 1729. In contemporary times they have continued to demonstrate their commitment to the country in other ways. In 1996 the French established what had been the oldest Western business association in Myanmar, the French Myanmar Business Association, now known as the French Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FMCCI). More recently in July 2014, France was a member of an international consortium that helped establish Myanmar’s first-ever private journalism school, The Myanmar Journalism Institute. None of this would have happened if the French were not fully invested in ensuring their relationship with Myanmar continues for decades to come.
I believe that businesspeople can learn a lot about intercultural awareness from such examples of bilateral cooperation, especially at a time when teams are increasingly comprised of international talent from many different countries. Team members that truly appreciate what it takes to work effectively across cultures embrace both global etiquette and intercultural awareness.
Working to earn trust and inspire respect, and focusing on building relationships that will stand the test of time rather than being solely task oriented, are the key to successful international partnerships. Wouldn’t you agree?
Joseph Shaules Interview Part 2: The Intercultural Mind
For those of you as fascinated by Joseph Shaules’ ideas as I am, I was able to catch up with him further – around the world in Tokyo this time – to ask a few follow-up questions. As expected, his answers are inspiring and made me really think – exactly how do I think about my mother?
Sharon: What is the single most fascinating thing you discovered when writing the book?
Joseph: The cultural neuroscience research really knocked my socks off. For example, brain imaging shows that when Chinese think of their mothers, the same part of the brain lights up when Chinese think of themselves. When Americans think of their mothers, on the other hand, the part that lights up is the same as when thinking about strangers. We are used to thinking of cultural difference in terms of customs, or maybe values, but this new work is showing us that it’s deeper and more complicated than that. Something that sounds so simple–cultural difference–is quite profound and affects us at many levels of the self.
Sharon: For those who do not travel internationally, is there something else that can stretch and strengthen the brain in the same way?
Joseph: You don’t have to travel to have intercultural experiences. Putting yourself into new social environments and getting to know people who have different cultural experiences from yourself – this can also have a powerful impact on the way we see the world. When we are in our home environment, we often tend to downplay cultural difference because we want to simply accept everyone as an equal. Often, however, if you show an active curiosity about the diversity you come into contact with in your hometown, you’ll find there’s a lot to learn. The most important intercultural lesson is that people everywhere are the same. The second-most important intercultural lesson is that people from other cultural backgrounds really ARE different in many important ways. Resolving the apparent contradiction between those two truths is at the heart of intercultural learning.
Sharon: What would you like to explore next on this subject?
Joseph: These days, I’m very interested in the language-culture connection–something I wrote one chapter about in The Intercultural Mind. Foreign language learning changed my life. In school, I dislike my Spanish class and would have failed if I hadn’t cheated on the final exam. At my part-time job at Sea World in San Diego, however, I came into contact with Spanish-speaking tourists and travelers. For the first time, the Spanish on the pages of my textbooks came alive. This led to a home stay in Mexico, and then eventually to living in Japan and learning Japanese–an ongoing effort, of course. Learning a new language is like being a baby starting over in another world–you have to reprogram your brain and develop a new way of thinking, acting and being. I have just written to a publisher, proposing a book on language education and intercultural understanding. So much fun! Such a big world!
My deepest gratitude to Joseph Shaules – for his time and his insight. May we all explore our own minds as we explore the world.