Communication styles: Lao and German – by Chanthalakone Souydalay
A tree is known by its fruit (ພາສາບອກຊາດ ມາລະຍາດບອກຕະກູນ)
Lao people have used this motto since ancient until now. Which is meaningful and shows cultivated Lao people preserve the cultural, language and traditional. Of course, language is not just used for communication whether writing, speaking, but on the other hand it is also a symbol that indicates the nationality, uniqueness and cultural of country.
Alongside, the etiquette imply attitude and also indicate that received DNA from the parents or parents as model. Moreover, Lao people were mostly taught to be good behaviors, polite actions and speeches person when they were child in the house, school and public. Overall, the apple tree is known its by own fruit the same as the language indicates the nation.
Obviously, Lao and German communication styles are very different because we have very distinct traditions and cultures. I have lived in Germany for 7 months1 and experienced that the communication styles are quite different for example the way of respect to the others and the manner of greeting. German people use their language, and Lao use their language. In each culture, communication is a matter of polite behavior2 that can be found in all cultures around the world. Hence, I am going to guide you through the different ways of Lao and German in communication styles as I experienced them.
How to address a Lao and German person
Normally Germans address the others politely, for example, both addresses the men and women with “Mr” and “Mrs” (“Herr” and “Frau”; Editor’s note: newly also “Divers” for transgender persons) to show respect when you call or in writing. Lao people also do that, but are careful when address the older person with “Sir” and “Ma’am” (ທ່ານ, “Than”) in front of a person’s name to be polite and show respect of age and experience.
Moreover, Lao address other people as family or relative, whether related by blood or not. For example, Lao calls older people “brother, sister, aunt, or uncle”, or on closer contact “Mum” (e.g. Dr. Isabel). This shows that Lao and Germans are very respectful of others. Moreover, Germans mostly call the last name to be polite but for the Lao is classifier plus the first name (“Ms Julia”, “Teacher Rebecca” or “son Thone”).
Eye contact in conversation
Lao people are quite shy and do not dare to express themselves. Because, they really worry about mistake, avoiding to losing face when something was wrong in front of more people. More reason, the students in Laos also have trouble finding an appropriate opportunity to make comment or share idea so it effects them when they are adult. This is why they use less eyes contact during communication with others and generally find it hard to speak up. Besides that, in Laos if you make a direct eye contact with stranger specially or older peoples it is considered to be rude and disrespectful behavior.
But, Avoiding eye contact in Germany might represent being not honest or not interested or hiding something, so it is necessary to make eye contact during conversation or when you cheer to a cup of beer.
Greeting someone in Germany generally differs in formality depending on a German knows other person well or not. They greet by the verbal words “Guten Tag” (“good day”) or “Hallo”, the most common greeting is handshakes and hugs. The men always make handshake with the eyes contact when they meet and the hug is common greeting with the close-friend or female friend and commonly done with the lover. Besides that, German guy usually honor by greeting the women first.
Nowadays, Germans represent the greeting during the Corona season by many new ways, for example the right elbow touches the other elbow or the feet crossing to touch with the greeter. But, Lao people always make a “nop” common form of greeting each other. This gesture can be done by putting your palms together in a prayer-like manner and bowing head slightly. When you meet people who are older and have higher status, it is customary to greet with “nop” and say the words “sabaidee”. The higher the addressee’s rank the higher the hands of the greeter.
Pointing to other people’s mistakes
Lao people are very friendly and generous that they always empathize the others. They also avoid pointing someone’s mistakes because they think that it is very rude. Lao usually speak very indirect and in very polite circles with the smiling to imply the point because they quite care for whom they speak to or are scared to upset that person.
But, in Germans speak very directly and straightly to the point because telling the truth to the others means honesty and friendship and also giving them a chance to notice their mistakes. Negative feelings or good comments are released through conversation to find the way to fix the problem and learn each other better as well. Then it is over and there is no face loss, only if you forget to apologize.
Getting to know a German
As I have lived in Germany for 7 months, of course I have many friends and I learned from their way life. Germans do not automatically smile to strangers or someone in trouble situation. Because Germans are really serious. Their humor comes out in other ways or when the situation is different. Smiling to a stranger or someone you do not know before might invite an interaction or even be considered flirting.
However, Lao always makes smiling or find the best way to get to know each other even thought stranger people or in trouble situations. Misunderstandings can happen this way.
Be friendly with a stranger
Although Lao people are very shy and show little interest to strangers and outsiders, in fact they are mostly friendly with others. Lao people are very easy to make friends even though they have never known person before. An example is “invite the stranger to share your meal” always happens when the friend or stranger come to house or walk past the house while they are having the meal that people will be invited. Also, if you have lived with or helped them they will see you as a significant person of them and being member of their family.
Once established, Lao people will maintain friendships forever.
Germans have rules for almost everything. For example, if you come to someone’s house without an appointment that can be impolite, you will not be invited in by them although you know them well (they are busy). As I have lived in Germany, I noticed that Germans looks at stranger as stranger and do not much interact to speak with them if they do not have to. Making friend in Germany will take a bit slowly of time to be friend, but their relationship gradually change over time.
Invitations and appointments
Germans are very good planning and punctuality person – I really like Germans that they will plan before doing and everything on schedule. As Germans are known for being organised people and they also respect with others and strict on the rule-following. Moreover, they are on time plays in culture, it is normal for Germans to arrive 5-10 minutes early at work place or when they have appointed with someone. If you are late for the appointment… this may sound excruciatingly obvious from them “BE ON TIME”. The Germans obviously do not like to keep waiting because it will make them lose the value time.
However, Lao people dislike to do on schedule and do not tend to be preoccupied with their use of time because they do not plan much. The meeting or appointment mostly delay and not on time. For example, if they have appointed with someone at 8 o’clock that the time will extend, this was accepted in the Lao culture. Lao are not good at planning, they will only plan in urgent time or the last minute.
If you are invited to visit Germans’ house or going somewhere out, please bear in mind to be on time and check in advance how to get there, whether the nearest car parking and tram stopping is. The being late is always considered uncouth and negligent in the eyes of your German hosts. Only if they tell “come anytime after 4:00” or “around 5:00 o’clock ” it is different. On the other hand, if it is a dinner invitation, this is even more important that all guests will plan to arrive on time setting. It would also be nice for them if the guests bring some food or drinks to share them although they are invited.
Repetition and redundancy
It can be said that it is a communication style of Lao people to repeat the information at least 3 times during conversation. Because, they want to understand clearly information, also saying things several times means honoring the partner of conversation. Lao people have good attention during the discussion, they interact quite a bit and listen in silence. This does not mean that they understand everything exactly, perhaps they cannot get all your meaning especially in English conversation (but they will smile as if they did). They are not fluent in English, it always have trouble and complicated when you are teaching or working with Lao partner.
Germans are quite efficient at discussion, they say something only one time. Germany is the “land of poets and thinkers“. German people are good expressive, good planning and accept others’ opinions. On the other hand, they train themselves a lot to listen clearly meaning, because if asking to repeat the information again during the conversation that means you are not concentrate listening them, especially in an academic situation. If somebody can find themselves in misunderstandings causing irritation feelings in Germany. Germans tend to speak once they have something of significance to say and do not want to repeat everything again. They expect you to remember or take notes or make entry in your calendar.
But professors and teachers are very patient and offer repetition for their learners.
Germans generally purpose to find the most efficient way of achieving the finest quality outcome. They take great care to plan methodically, thus spend much time deliberating and scrutinizing all factors of a decision. They plan in advance at least 1-2 weeks and the time is very valuable for them. Moreover, they are strict on following the rules, doing on time setting and they will show very little flexibility because other people’s work depends on theirs being punctual.
Whereas, Lao people are always doing on last minutes as they do not plan in advance. If one person decides to plan better it cannot work because the others don’t. So they will start doing when it is short time to deadline to show concentration to others at work place. Also, Lao people are very calm, make themselves comfortable other time and they normally chill on working.
Germans are so private about their data! It is a fact that is no any place in the world are there stricter requirements for data protection and privacy than in the European Union. Especially, Germany is the home of data protection more than other countries. In addition, Germany strict data protection regulations have been in force in Germany for decades that they are a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution. It is normally that Germans see the importance of personal information, they publish less private detail in social media whether photos, Facebook, Whats App numbers. One more, they do not really like if someone share their private number to third person without asking owner first for consent and it is not nice if someone contact immediately without appointment. But, there are exceptions, so it depends on the occasion and the person that some people might see it as not appropriate and some do not mind.
Whereas, Lao people normally see the significance of personal information too, but they could pass the private number to the requester immediately if it is necessary. It is a token of friendship to pass on one’s number also in a non-private situation, e.g. a hotel manager to a guest. Also, very famous applications like Facebook have a lot of Lao people use it to communicate with each other and publish personal data. It can almost be said that Facebook is the daily communicative life of the Lao people today.
It has been over 7 months since I came to Germany as a student in the Erasmus+ programme just before the corona pandemic lockdown. I was worried about the day-life and studying semester here quite a lot, but thankfully I was fine. In the summer semester here, everything was a challenge for me because it is first time to study abroad in a Western country so I have adjust to a new life (which?) but cannot go out. Instead, I got new experiences in online-learning on the tools StudIP and BigBlueButton of the University of Education Karlsruhe.
I did not have much direct contact face to face with Germans at first because of the government did not allow to meet or go out more than two people, but our buddies and Erasmus+ supervisor Prof. Isabel and some former volunteers invited us out for “walkie-talkies” so we were not alone all the time. It was still difficult for me to learn communicating by using eye-contacting because I am so shy and I always lose confidence when I talk someone on face to face. Fortunately, When the pandemic was less severe after June, I often went out with my Germans’s friends and also they taught how to live and greeting.
The ability to get to know and be associated with Germans slowly made me feel to become more international, self-confident in English speaking and a more expressive person than ever before. Moreover, I realized in Germany the eye contact is necessary for showing honesty and the communication style is very direct and you do not have to be afraid to show honest feelings or sometimes give negative comments. You may get closer to a German person that way.
For my experienced, I spent time with my German friends that I realized and open my mind to learn the German culture whether greeting, planning in advance, being on time, and eyes contact on conversation. Moreover, I also have a lot of activities here with them, as I adjusted to their lifestyles. I am really punctual now when I have appointment with someone. I also dare to express opinions now and have more confidence in speaking English with foreigners more than before. I am able to solve problems on my own and perform various new work and tasks (like making videos or writing and illustrating this post myself on WordPress).
As October is here now this is my last month of being Erasmus+ student in Germany. My impressive time is going to finish, but looking back I am not hesitate to say my living here has been memorable and valuable time. I feel like I have the best opportunity.
Hence, I am very exited to share experience that I had here with my parents, colleagues, and special students, about the Germans lifestyle, how to greeting in Germany, the culture and other. The most important things that I will take back are the new teaching methods to adapt in my class in Laos, for example Online-courses and other skills, methods and techniques of teaching.
I really like the way of teachers here to give chance to students to express themselves and share the ideas together. Moreover, I will motivate my students to adjust and strictly follow rules, being on time and plan for doing in the future. Finally, I will take the knowledge that I have gotten from here to develop my Learning-teaching at my university in Savannekhet (SKU).
Hence, I am sincerely thank you to professor Isabel Martin who gave a great opportunity and organised the activities in here. I would like to thank you so much to my buddy, German friends invited yummy foods, taught how to realize in German communication and gave me a memorable trips. And also thank you ALL whom concern with my being exchange student here.
You are all very welcome to visit me in Lao P.D.R. one day when travelling is easier again so I can show you Lao hospitality!
Text by C. Souydalay (“Thon”)
Photos by M. Koleczko, M. Fuchs, J. Friedl, P. Luong, P. Xaikhongkham & C. Souydalay
1 Editor’s note: Erasmus+ Student Mobilities normally do not extend beyond 6 months, but the return flights to Laos at the end of August were cancelled by the airlines, and there were no new flights in September. The flight later this week is organised by the Lao government to bring Lao residents worldwide back home via Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). They will have to go into a guarded quarantine for 14 days as soon as they set foot in Laos.
Erasmus+ extended the time frame for international projects by one year once the travel restrictions caused by Covid-19 became apparent, which means our other SKU partners who were supposed to join Mr Chanthalakone and Mr Phongsavang in April/May will hopefully come over next spring.
2 Brown, Penelope (2015). “Politeness and language”. https://pure.mpg.de/rest/items/item_1719314_10/component/file_2152013/content
Boase, B. (ed.) (2003). “Working with your Lao partner”. A guide to establishing effective cross cultural the Communication and Working Relationships in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. SEAsite Laos. http://www.seasite.niu.edu/lao/undp/wwyLp.htm (last accessed 25 September 2020)
Brown, Penelope (2015). “Politeness and language”. https://pure.mpg.de/rest/items/item_1719314_10/component/file_2152013/content (last accessed 25 September 2020)