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.