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“When Yes is No” in Myanmar and how should we judge people?

Working in Myanmar, expats have often faced lots of peculiarities, oddities and obstacles. These challenges often take place when working with Burmese people due to cultural discrepancies. Cross-cultural leadership is, in fact, the biggest management challenge of expats working overseas, according to the Economist.

According to many of a hundred expats and fifty Myanmar professionals who participated in my survey for the book “When Global Meets Local – How Expatriates Can Succeed in Myanmar”, “When Yes is No” is a situation that many expats often encounter in Myanmar.

This story is common that can happen to any newcomer expat. After assigning a task to one of his Myanmar reports, he/she asks “Is this ok for you?” and/or “Are you sure you can do it?” or “Do you get it?”. The answer they often receive is “Yes”, and “Yes”. The expat feels pleased to have a “can do” local colleague!

But when the deadline clocks in, the expat can be astounded to find out the task is not completed yet, or completed in a totally unexpected way. He/she asks themselves, “Why Yes is No” ? Sometimes, the question is “Why don’t they deliver their promises?”, “Does my report try to lie?” 

Do you think there is a divergence in your behavior with people if you hold contrasting assumptions about their characteristics? For example, when you think “He is honest” versus when you think “He cheats me”. The answer is possibly “Yes”.

Such a suspected thought about people can lead to negative things in communicating and working with one’s local colleagues. You may be not sure if you should believe his words later on.

Please, let me ask you a question: Are you sure you understand him correctly?

The truth is, as Stephen Covey mentioned in his best-selling book “7 habits of highly successful people”: “We judge ourselves by our intentions. And we judge others by their actions.”

Actually, lots of Myanmar people are very hesitant to say “No” to others, particularly to their superiors. Saying “No” can be considered “rude” in Myanmar culture. It can cause embarrass to the receivers. They then just say “Yes”, and Yes” to please you. 

Even in case they do not understand the assignment, they are also hesitant to “ask back” for elaboration because it can be considered as “challenging seniors” in the local culture. “Asking back” is undesirable for their seniors, they think.

It is the “Anadeh” – Survival Rule 2 as put in the book “When Global Meets Local – How Expatriates can Succeed in Myanmar” generating those kinds of people’s behaviors. Actually, their intentions are good.

Then, what to do? There is an article – “Build a school in Burma” by Zon Pann in the Myanmar Times: an American expat Abby Hester explained on how to deal with “strange behaviors” in Myanmar. “One of the most important things is to always think of the other person’s intentions, even if you’re uncertain,” Abby said. “Often, someone has good intentions, but they behave in a way that is strange to us, because we are from different cultures. But if you are thoughtful about their intentions, you can have a positive, happy interaction.” In fact, her job in Myanmar has become easier thanks to her “intercultural skill”.

Please note that it may be wrong if we judge others by their “strange” behaviors!

Hana Bui is an intercultural trainer and author. Her book “When Global Meets Local – How Expatriates Can Succeed in Myanmar” is the bestselling first-time guidebook for expats on how to work well with local colleagues.

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