How Do You Do?

By Nop Monineath

Image credit: U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh / 2017 / licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Imagine your fifty-year old self were walking down the street, and you happen to run into one of your favorite grandsons. He exclaims “Hey! What’s up, granny?” which is seen as impolite in Cambodian local culture. What would be your reaction? Would you be disappointed by the use of discourteous language? Would you be shocked by the cultural change? Or would you be confused as if you are behind the trends?

Visiting a pagoda on Pchum Ben day, I couldn’t help but notice that some Cambodians, including myself, use unconventional ways of addressing the monks. This led me to a question as to whether or not traditional Cambodian customs have been neglected.

Cambodia’s ways of greeting is a centuries old practiced. The “Sampeah” greeting (IPA: /sɒmpeəh/) is a gesture of respect, used when two or more people meet. The most commonly-used Sampeah would be the one where you place your palms together in front of the chest, with a slight bow and fingers pointing upward, accompanied by “How do you do?” However, one feature that distinguishes the Cambodian greeting from other countries is that we have various levels of Sampeah, which are used in different situations, based on the age, social status, and relationship we have with the people we are paying respect to.

The following are five styles of Sampeah:

  • For friend and same-age people: our hands are placed on the chest.
  • For elders or higher ranking people: our hands are placed on the mouth.
  • For parents, grandparents, and teachers: our hands are placed on the nose.
  • For monks and royalty: our hands are placed on the eyebrows.
  • For Buddha, God, Deva, or the act of praying: Our hands are placed on forehead, or above the head.

Regarding the degree of the bow, the closer the hands move to the face and the lower the bow, the greater courtesy we are showing.

As globalization has taken roots in every part of our country, it is hard to deny that our culture has been somewhat shaped and influenced by it. Take a look at the current way of people greet each other, for example. It is somewhat westernized. Handshaking is commonly used across Cambodia, especially in the government and business sectors. Saying “Sour Sdey” (informal term of hello), instead of “Chum Reap Suor” (formal term for hello) has also become a common practice here. However, those are now acceptable because they are in line with internationally used gestures and language.

With elders, monks and other respected individuals of higher social status, using “hey,” “Sour Sdey,” hugging, kissing, fist or shoulder bumping, etc. are big no-no’s in Cambodian culture. Also, we are conservative; any inappropriate physical contact and some kinds of public displays of affection (PDA) would cause nothing but awkwardness and discomfort between people. Still, some Cambodian young people are increasingly embracing this.

Our country is filled with marvelous, glorious heritage​ sites, culture, and tradition that are considered to be one of a kind. Sampeah is a part of that culture — a culture that represents the identity of our nation, individuals and our history. We should preserve this unique cultural value; pass it to the next generation with a sense of pride and dignity. This would make sure that Cambodia remains living up to its name as a friendly and hospitable country. If you plan to visit here, this can be a great lesson to avoid culture shock in cross-cultural communication.

Views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.

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