I believe that in order to truly understand a culture, understanding the language is crucial. I’m not here long enough to learn much Khmer, but knowing the history of the language and how it is used provides insight into the culture as well. This is really important. In order to be effective in our project, we need to understand the cultural variables that shape the way the employees of the organization operate, the values inherent in the organization itself, and the way that we will need to orient our recommendations and communicate them to provide real value. Language is an avenue towards understanding cultural symbolism.
Khmer is heavily influenced by Sanskrit and Pali, reflecting the centrality of religion in the history of Cambodia. Sanskrit is the language of ancient Hindu texts, while Pali is used in some of the earliest Buddhist scriptures—particularly those of Theravada Buddhism, now devoutly practiced throughout Cambodia.
This combination of Sanskrit and Pali, Hinduism and Buddhism, is born out of the height of Khmer culture, displayed in all its glory at the temples of Angkor Wat. Walking from temple to temple, you can see architectural features that incorporate both Buddhist and Hindu religious elements illustrating the tumultuous history of conquest and the varied beliefs and desires of the devarajas, or god-kings, over the centuries. In spite of being purged during the Pol Pot regime, Buddhism is again central to the Khmer way of life, permeating almost every interaction including both the words and the nonverbal cues chosen to express a thought or idea. Interestingly, Cambodia’s Buddhism also contains undertones of both Hinduism and animism seen through hierarchy, superstitious beliefs and a continued reliance on traditional healers who are often located within the Buddhist pagodas themselves. History continues to be relevant in the intricacies of tradition and values.
How does this combination of language and religion manifest itself in the workplace? One example is the way that language reflects the importance of hierarchy in the culture, requiring you to be ever conscious of a person’s social status. Verbs themselves change according to who you’re talking to, with different words for close friends or animals (yes, they are on the same level), commoners, those of higher social status, monks and finally for royals. While we as a team are not able to communicate in these terms through the Khmer language, being conscious of these distinctions provides us with a lens through which to view Cambodian culture more generally, and DDD’s operations specifically. We learned quickly that in order to be able to get real answers and take action when talking to potential clients for DDD, we needed to talk to the senior decisionmakers—junior staff fall in line when a superior tells them what to do, but have very little power to move information or suggestions up the chain of command.
Another aspect of cultural influence relates to the fact that almost all Cambodian men spend time in the pagoda as a monk. For the poor, children receive their education through the pagoda as well, meaning that the very language they learn comes through Buddhism. Given this system, at least half of the operators and staff at the DDD have either been educated through the Buddhist education system or have spent time in the pagoda—the impact this has on the workplace cannot be overstated. DDD’s staff have been shaped by their religious experiences and therefore introduce it into the workplace, whether this be through the shrine in the entryway of the building or through their sense of determinism. Spending time understanding the intertwined strands of language and Buddhism, and their expression in daily life is an important element of our work for DDD, and will certainly influence the outcome of our project in significant ways.