With most of the remaining Western sanctions lifted, Myanmar is officially open for business and companies are rushing in. As the nation formerly known as Burma was closed off to the world for so long, its culture is virtually unknown to most outsiders, and this can make doing business here difficult. Combine that with the fact that the country had little contact with Western businesses since pre-internet times, and cross-cultural communication when doing business in Myanmar presents a minefield of potential stumbles.
Fortunately, correct business etiquette in Myanmar is not so different than it is in other Asian countries, particularly neighboring Thailand. Making things even easier, Myanmar people are very warm, friendly, and understanding about cultural differences and generally will not take offence at honest mistakes or cultural faux pas. Still, the more you know before your first Burma business meeting, the more relaxed you’ll feel and the more impressed people will be by you. Here are the top tips for doing business in the Myanmar culture.
This is one thing that can surprise even longtime expats in other Asian countries. In Thailand for example, shoes are typically worn in the office, but not in Myanmar. Nearly all offices here are shoes-free areas. Generally, shoes are worn in public corridors, but removed at the door to a firm’s offices. You’ll likely see a shoe rack at places where they need to be removed, and by watching what other people do you’ll get a good idea of what you should. If in doubt, assume you should take them off; the slight embarrassment of unnecessarily removing your loafers is much better than the offence caused by leaving them on.
Handshakes are common in Myanmar business culture with one caveat: There is no one correct answer when it comes to handshakes between the sexes. When foreign men do business in Myanmar, men will readily shake their hands. With women, things get a bit more unsure. The best policy is to let the woman make the call. Wait to see if she extends her hand, and if she doesn’t, a smile and exchanging of pleasantries will do. For foreign women, the choice is yours. If you want to shake hands, do so. If not, no worries.
Generally speaking, foreigners doing business in Myanmar should wear what they would wear in a similar context in their home country. With that said though, due to the hot and often humid climate in Myanmar, dress does usually tend toward the more casual. Neckties and especially jackets are often foregone. Myanmar men and women often wear traditional garb, but foreigners do not need to do this. Business casual is a pretty good bet in most situations.
One very important note to all this is for women, who should not dress in revealing clothing in this fairly conservative culture. Skirts should reach the knees and shoulders should be covered for any business dealings.
Myanmar culture has something of a middle ground approach to small talk, not requiring a long elaborate ritual, but also not diving straight into business talk. If you ever feel stuck for a topic of conversation, Myanmar people are usually curious about foreigners’ impressions of their country, culture, and cuisine. Knowing a few words of Burmese will be particularly impressive and get you off on the right foot.
While gift giving isn’t a necessity on a first business meeting, it is certainly appreciated. If you’re coming from your home country, a local product is always a good bet. It’s hard to go wrong with a box of quality chocolates. Gifts need not be overly expensive as it’s about the gesture, and something that costs a lot can make the recipient feel uncomfortable receiving it.
A meeting in a foreign culture – particularly one as unfamiliar to most of the world as Myanmar’s – can be a daunting experience. It really needn’t be. People in Myanmar are famously friendly, and they understand that cultural differences exist just as well as you do. They’ll be forgiving of the smaller missteps you’ll probably make, and if you follow the advice above, you won’t commit any larger offence. If you’re ever unsure about something, just ask. And finally, smile. A simple smile goes a long, long way in Myanmar, especially toward alleviating situations that are uncomfortable or embarrassing to you or your hosts.