Travel & Expat Lifestyle Magazine

Learning the Social and Business Customs of Cambodia



Most Cambodians are ethnically Khmer (90%), and abide by the Theravada Buddhist religion (95%). Khmer is the official language, which is used in the government, education and mass media. There are not too many regional differences between the overall Cambodian dialect.

In terms of their religion, Theravada Buddhism goes by the principles of karma and reincarnation, and you reap what you sow. This religion also stresses having the right thoughts, speaking the right words, earning a living in the correct manner and meditating. There is also some social hierarchy in this belief system, such as that parents are superior to their children, and teachers are superior to their students. Monks often walk in rank order, with the most superior in front and the lowest in the back.

Cambodians also put value in collectivism. The individual is thought of as second to the community. They also emphasis the value of face, which is one’s pride and social significance. You can lose or gain face, or give or receive it to another.

When Cambodians greet one another, their mannerisms depend on the social relationship and hierarchy. Traditionally, people will put their hands in prayer pose against their chests and bow to one another. Cambodians may recognize foreigners and shake their hands instead.

In terms of gift giving, a big event to do this is the Cambodian New Year, Chaul Chnam. Birthdays are not important; old people may not even know their birthdays. If you are invited to someone’s house, it is custom to give fruit, candy or flowers. Try not to give knives, or wrap gifts in white, the color of mourning. If you are at dinner, wait until you are invited to be seated, as you do not want to offend their concept of hierarchy. The eldest person will generally sit down first, and also initiate eating. Try not to discuss business matters at such dinners.


The hierarchical values are also reflected in the Cambodian business world, so the oldest person is often treated with the most respect and honor. When you attend a meeting, you will be set to greet the most respected person. People often exchange handshakes, but try not to be too firm, as that reflects aggressiveness. Business cards are usually exchanged after the first introductions. Try to have a side translated into Khmer. You must treat a business card respectfully, as it is reflective of that person’s face. During the meeting, try not to get heated or show any emotion, as it represents a loss of face. Also try to avoid long eye contact.


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