Do expats in Myanmar have their Achilles heel? Read the “astonishing story” of intercultural mistakes that nearly cost an expat’s job!
Article by Hana Bui in Today Tourism Magazine, Nov, 2019.
How to overcome expats’ Achilles heel in Myanmar?
The ancient Greek mythology has it that Achilles was made invulnerable. His mother dipped him into the river Styx in the Underworld containing special power. Yes, he became invulnerable everywhere, but at his heel where his mother held him. An Achilles heel is a weakness in spite of overall strength, which can lead to downfall.
Do expats in Myanmar have their Achilles heel?
No one has only strengths without weakness. Expats in Myanmar are not exceptions. They have actually lots of strengths when working in a newly open country where things are mostly in the beginning phase of development like Myanmar. Their strengths include advanced education and knowledge, extensive international experience and vision, multiple networks, etc. They therefore usually bring with them great expectations about reaping fabulous success in the Golden Land.
So what is their Achilles heel?
Nonetheless, they have often found lots of oddities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, and challenges working here. These challenges tend to occur when working with Burmese people due to cultural differences. “Cross-cultural leadership” is the biggest management challenge of expats working overseas, according to The Economist.
Thus their Achilles heel lies in the cultural conflicts – for many cases the cultural shock is inevitable!. “What is Different is Dangerous”, states Geert Hofstede(the leading scholar in Intercultural Theories).
The intercultural mistakes nearly cost an expat’s job!
A European veteran hotelier who has lead lots of 5-star hotels setting up and operations shared the story which nearly cost his job (his words). In order to foster a relationship with his local business partner, he once eagerly invited him to the kitchen at a Michelin-starred restaurant in a 5-star hotel. It would be a great honor for his guest at home to be treated that way!
However, it turned out to be a painful experience! For his Myanmar guest felt displ-eased, even angry and then became distant to the expat. Their relationships grew weird and bad.
Trying hard to find out the causes of these sudden negative changes in his local partner’s behaviors, eventually, after lots of struggles and efforts, he discovered the truth. His local business partner felt offended, if not insulted, to be invited to have food in a kitchen. It is not the way a high profile person is honored in Myanmar! Not sure how much reputable Michelin restaurant is perceived by him, but he felt very bad and even humiliated.
“The intercultural mistakes nearly cost me my job!” (He commented)
How to overcome the expats’ Achilles heel?
There are various ways to work it out. But the first significant step is to be aware of their own cultural background. (Knowing thyself is the beginning of all wisdom – Aristotle and Lao Dzu). The second awareness is of Myanmar culture. The cultural conflict – their biggest challenge or their Achilles heel, thus, is the third crucial awareness. For example, if an expat comes from a country of low hierarchy level, he would expect his subordinates to give honest feedback once being asked. Then in Myanmar, a country with hierarchy culture, subordinates are not comfortable to give feedbacks to his supervisors being afraid of considering “disrespectful” to his superior. Then, cultural conflict is possible while they work together.
Understanding this would lead to finding effective solutions to minimize this dreadful challenge of cultural conflicts. For example, analyzing from one’s own experience, learning from others’ expats’ experience, talking with HR Managers, attending intercultural seminars, workshops, reading books of Myanmar working culture, etc. The decisive factor lies in the outcome versus the expense in term of time and money. Which option would be the optimum – the one that can be learned fast and applied effectively, at a reasonable cost?
In many cases, decent intercultural training is a practical and saving solution. But it also depends on how long an expat has worked in Myanmar. The newcomer expats get the best benefits from intercultural workshop though. As one is fresh, professional intercultural training can help him save months and years of making intercultural mistakes that diminish his performance, without knowing it!. At the same time, his company or organization saves lots of money and time, too. They have in fact invested hugely in order to afford hiring an expat.
For expats who have lived in Myanmar for years, the other ways may be helpful as well.
In any cases, do not fall because of your Achilles heel! It is curable!
Hana Bui is an intercultural trainer and best-selling author. Her book “When Global Meets Local – How Expatriates Can Succeed in Myanmar” is the first-time guidebook for expats on how to work well with local colleagues. Hana can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Four Distances model tells us about a variegated set of variables that affect communication and make it of excellent quality, satisfying, constructive, or bad, destructive and miserable.
It is good to start the more in-depth exposition of the model with an overall picture, and then move on to the analysis of each single point and each single “Distance”.
The basis of the model dates back to the simple acknowledgment that:
Man uses words to express himself (or signs, or gestures).
The word is the representative of an idea, of a concept. Since the person cannot transfer the direct experience of what he does or feels and experiences, he is forced to use the word, or gesture or sign, with all the limits that it entails.
The concept or idea is formed following contact with some aspect of reality, external reality (things, objects) or internal reality (emotions, moods), the so-called external referents.
Every single living person carries out this process with differences, slight or large, giving rise to an interpersonal communication that opens up to many misunderstandings and intercultural misunderstandings.
This is in summary the representation of a thought that dates back even to the famous “Essay on Human Intellect” by John Locke, a 17th century British philosopher and physician, pioneer of the studies on language and communication . Locke, for example, distinguished:
Ideas of sensation, those that come from external experience, from sensations such as, for example, colors. The formation of these ideas takes place from external objects, from which data come that are imprinted on that blank slate that is our sensitivity.
Ideas of reflection concern the internal experience or reflection on the internal acts of our mind such as thinking, the birth of ideas, doubting, wanting, etc.
The overall model can be represented as follows:
Figure 9 – 4DM – 4 Distances Model – Model of the Four Distances
In this model, the distinction between Hard and Soft variables does not have to do with common perception (Hard = solid, concrete, and Soft = light or less important), but with the very nature of a variable. Both hard and soft variables are absolutely important.
The difference lies in their greater or lesser tangibility. Values are something intangible, but the resulting behaviors are very tangible – for example, the abstract value of ecology gives rise to the concrete behavior of recycling paper, plastic and glass, among other things, and not polluting, so don’t we confuse the fact of being intangible with an alleged minor importance of a variable.
In a person, the number of years (age) will be a hard datum, and a soft datum (but much more important) the personality type, or even the personality state with which the person is living.
In fact, at a certain moment, I can communicate with someone and find myself – as Transactional Analysis shows, in a state of Parental personality, or Adult State, or Child State, with various sub-categories and nuances. This will affect how I communicate, on every front, what I say, how I say it, what distances I place with the person I’m interacting with, and what attitudes I use.
The state of consciousness can be counted among the hard components, although it may seem intangible. In fact, the brain frequencies associated with each state of consciousness are a physical datum and are measurable, and the state of consciousness then produces behaviors and physiological states, even partially directly observable.
In the Science of Neuro-Associative Programming ™ (PNA)  the phenomenon of the connection between a mental state (let’s say relaxation, or the activation of positive emotions) with an external state or performance, such as communicating in public, is concretely realized , intercultural communication, negotiation, sales, training or sports performance.
The essential thing is to understand in which mental state the greatest well-being for the person and the best performance for her are produced at the same time.
In intercultural communication, returning to the Fischer scale, certainly better results are produced by associating relaxation and sensitivity to the communicative act, while at the same time avoiding the onset of anxiety or altered negative states of consciousness.
This also applies to doctor-patient communication and any professional communication, including helping relationships such as coaching, counseling, psychotherapy and training.
 Locke, John (1960) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London, The Baffet.
The keywords of this article on Neuro-Associative Programming and Intercultural Communication are:
Bring out your own inner dialogue. Identity, State of Consciousness, Communication Situation (COMSIT) in Intercultural Communication
Communication implies an exchange of information and emotions. Reasoning about our identity asks us to shed light on our true nature, on our being. Transferring “who we are” to others is always difficult, as human complexity and the many roles and shades of personality that are part of us form a truly huge galaxy. We are atoms in an infinite aquarium of molecules, every now and then we try to stop and talk to each other, but we realize how difficult it is, both to stop and to talk to each other.
In intercultural communication it is very important to come to understand which part of our inner dialogue is emerging, which part we would like to share, and if “understanding deeply” is difficult, at least knowing is possible. This requires adequate exercises of focusing on the “multiple Selfs” that we carry within us. And how they communicate externally, that is, what part of us is emerging in intercultural communication. Is the “scientist” emerging, is the hero emerging, is the victim emerging, is the traveler or the researcher emerging? Which archetype guides me at a certain moment? And by which archetype is the other guided? This step is essential to know the possible D1, the role distances, and how these can impact intercultural communication.
“If understanding is impossible, knowing is necessary.” Primo Levi
Lack of communication can prevent us from making others understand what we would like to do, how we feel, what we really are, and what we could be.
A great source of incommunicability occurs when we ourselves have not made a clear picture of us, first of all about ourselves, about our being, about the boundaries of our mental space and our role in the world. I may not be able to correctly transfer information also because I myself have a blurred, uncleared representation of my Self. The communication that will come out will certainly be the bearer of doses of incommunicability, at the start.
The whole problem of life is this: how to break one’s loneliness, how to communicate with others. Cesare Pavese
Targeted Introspection has a name in psychology, it means Focusing. Focusing (both in the variant of emotional focusing – shedding light on emotions, and in informative focusing – clarifying data and facts), allows us to clarify – first of all to ourselves – what we want to convey, what we feel is important to convey, and what we want to happen as a result of our communication (communicative effect or result).
The issue of incommunicability leads us to ask ourselves what the possible “common ground” is, what “you and I” potentially have to share, what common interests we have or could have, what we could talk about.
The following principle speaks of this:
Principle 5 – Focusing on one’s identity and multiple roles, State of Consciousness and COMSIT
Intercultural communication becomes positive and effective the more:
people have practiced “focusing” on their own identity;
people have practiced focusing on their multiple life roles;
people understand with what role it is good to communicate and are consistent in doing so, given the COMSIT (Communication Situation) they have to face;
the person experiences the intercultural relationship in a positive role and within a “cognitive space” of pleasure, in a positive neurophysiological state of consciousness, connected to relaxation, and appropriate to the situation;
the people or a person accept each other (one accepts the other) in the specific role they have decided to put in place and represent during the interaction;
people play the right role in relation to the ongoing COMSIT;
people are looking for a “Common Ground” or common ground of role, identity and project and the possible necessary relational glue.
Intercultural communication becomes difficult or ineffective when:
people have not practiced “focusing” on their identity and this acts in the background but without awareness; people have not practiced “focusing” on their multiple life roles and therefore do not know exactly which role to play or stage the wrong role;
people do not understand with which role it is good to communicate and are not consistent in doing so, given the COMSIT (Communication Situation) they have to face;
the person experiences intercultural interaction with a negative role, within a “cognitive space” of malaise and in a negative neurophysiological state of consciousness dominated by anxiety and / or altered with respect to the situation;
people or a person do not accept each other (or one does not accept the other) in the specific role they have decided to put in place and represent during the interaction;
people play the wrong role in relation to the ongoing COMSIT;
people do not look for a “Common Ground” or common ground of role, identity and project, and they do not actively nourish the possible relational glue.
The map of our states of consciousness and altered states of consciousness is useful, as well as for well-being, to improve our communication
The Fisher Scale, or map of states of consciousness, highlights the position of any person, in the mental continuum between agitation and relaxation, up to the extremes of deep meditation (on the right) and hysteria (on the left), passing through states such as daily perception, anxiety, creativity and others.
It is a very important tool to understand where we are when we communicate interculturally
Figure 5 – Fisher’s map (map of states of consciousness) 
Each position along the scale corresponds to a precise, scientifically measurable brain frequency.
Varieties of conscious states mapped on a perception-hallucination continuum of increasing ergotropic arousal (left) and a perception-meditation continuum of increasing trophotropic arousal (right). These levels of hyper-and hypoarousal are interpreted by man as normal, creative, psychotic, and ecstatic states (left) and Zazen and samadhi (right). The loop connecting ecstasy and samadhi represents the rebound from ecstasy to samadhi, which is observed in response to intense ergotropic excitation. The numbers 35 to 7 on the perception-hallucination continuum are Goldstein’s coefficient of variation (46), specifying the decrease in variability of the EEG amplitude with increasing ergotropic arousal. The numbers 26 to 4 on the perception-meditation continuum, on the other hand, refer to those beta, alpha, and theta EEG waves (measured in hertz) that predominate during, but are not specific to, these states. Source: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324877864_The_Fractal_Limit_of_Human_Thought/figures?lo=1)
Anchoring the state of mind on the Fisher Scale
The work of Neuro-Associative Programming ™ consists precisely in anchoring a state of mind to a task or performance that we want to carry out in the best possible state. In this case, communicating interculturally will be more effective if done in conditions of relaxation rather than in a state of anxiety or agitation.
As I highlighted in the text “Psychology of Freedom” , Fisher in this pioneering work warns us: we are increasingly bombarded with information, but in some contexts, further increases risk saturation: further increases in the content of the data can not finding adequate correspondence in an adequate processing rate of these data.
In other words, when the input information is so many, so many that our ability to process them all progressively decreases, we risk slipping towards schizophrenic states . This had been highlighted in the 70s, let alone now with the increase of channels and social media available.
The fact becomes even more complicated when, in addition to elaborating “normal” communication flows, intercultural differences are introduced to complicate everything.
From the scale it is clear that for daily health, every significant piece of life spent in a state of “agitation” or nervousness, should be accompanied by a state of recovery, tranquility and meditation. Definitely after, but even earlier in some cases as a moment of mental preparation (eg, preparation for a competition or an exam, or a strong intercultural negotiation).
The Fisher scale and its many possible teachings are becoming a factor of personal health. We should all know it, at least to make a daily mapping of how we are and readjust the game on the life situations in which we are.
But of this, we do not speak.
On the other hand, it is very easy to meet horoscopes of all kinds on national and public TVs.
Another indicator that our Semiosphere is full of filth and poor in meaning and knowledge that we would really need.
Our personal power lies in picking up the contents of our personal Semiosphere, working it, putting into it what is useful, throwing out the useless. It is time to fight, it is time to fight for these concepts, for us and for all the people we care about, and for a freer and cleaner humanity, and more capable of meeting different cultures without panicking.
 Roland Fischer (1971), A Cartography of the Ecstatic and Meditative States. In Science, Vol 174 Num 4012 26 November 1971.
 See bibliography
 From the original text “further increase in data content may not be matched by a corresponding increase in the rate of data processing”
Let’s continue explaining the advantages deriving from empathy and active listening, basic principles of the ALM business method.
Quality listening requires silence.
When you listen, in silence, even the subtlest rustle acquires meaning. By combining any sensory information, we are able to perceive more in a quiet situation, rather than in a chaotic one. If we can’t grasp information, we will never be able to interpret it, to give it meaning, to evaluate it and to understand its meanings.
Active listening and empathy should not be confused with accepting another people’s content.
The rules of active listening are methods that allow thoughts to flow as freely as possible. The so-called “unconditional acceptance” is valid in a psychotherapeutic context, but not necessarily in everyday communication.
Inner Dialogue and Authenticity
We often talk to a very close person: ourselves.
A very important topic linked to communication topic and personal growth concerns the concept of “Basic Rogersian Distance” or Self-incongruity.
With this term we intend to summarize a critical aspect presented by Carl Rogers in his work Client-Centred Therapy, dedicated to the process of individual growth and self-development.
According to Rogers, one of the most conditioning variables in personal growth is the presence of incongruity, whose critical nodes are:
believing things concerning us that are not true, and
not realizing how we really are.
The synthesis of Rogersian thought highlights these mechanisms:
people are often not aware of what they are doing. A manager may think to have managed a deal well, without realising that the other party si laughing just outside the door;
people are often unaware of their mistakes. They blame the negative results on the forces of fate and avoid conducting an introspection that could leads them to discover that they have defects and that they must improve. This prevents them from grasping their goals and their need for personal growth;
it is difficult to become aware of one’s real behaviours and errors, until one seeks and accepts as many honest feedbacks as possible, while facing an authentic interlocutor who can help the person open his/her eyes by highlighting inconsistencies.
For a self-perception dystonia to emerge and not degenerate further (and in some cases it really degenerates into a deep crisis), it is necessary that the person must be able to benefit from an extremely rare yet indispensable condition: having internal or external consultants, trainers, coaches or counsellors, who know how to observe a hidden reality and are willing to deal with extreme authenticity without distortions and fears.
The consultant is an increasingly important figure. As Rogers himself observes, authenticity is the basis of the effectiveness of any helping relationship. In the ALM method authenticity is essential as an engine for development, and its benefits far outweigh its costs.
Authentic relationships are extremely rare, but we can and must make every effort to actively build them, research them and create the conditions for them to occur, both in everyday life and in business life. This means speaking clearly.
In a consulting approach, authenticity is necessary to let problems of image emerge. Authenticity is part of any relationship: there is an authenticity towards us (we must stop lying to ourselves) and an authenticity towards others (we must stop hiding behind fake social masks).
To sum up, personal efficiency and effectiveness are positively correlated to:
the knowledge and awareness of one’s own identity, culture and communicative behaviour;
the time and energy devoted to the active construction of an ideal image of oneself and of one’s company and the willingness and concreteness in improving oneself;
one’s self-knowledge, favoured by an authentic consultancy and counselling relationship capable of bringing out distortions and inconsistencies between the person’s real situation, and his/her false opinions, beliefs and self-deceptions.
The negative factors that can affect corporate and personal efficiency and effectiveness are:
poor awareness of oneself;
lack of analysis and active construction of an aspirational identity (ideal self, ideal image);
lack of awareness of one’s own gaps;
persistence of self-deceptions that have not emerged and are not treated as such;
inability or unwillingness to implement a personal growth plan, hoping that “things will work out, anyway”. If you don’t do something serious and specific, they will never be fixed.
Tracing a path that leads from incommunicability to constructive communication is a titanic undertaking, difficult to complete in a single life, a visionary goal, but also an engine of inspiration. But, however difficult, it deserves a commitment. In decades of scientific research and consultancy in the field, I have been able to experience the difficulty of people in communicating their thoughts, in understanding that of others, and the consequent difficulties of companies in cooperating.
At the same time, I have been able to see (like all of you) that, when communication works, the fruits immediately emerge. On the other hand, when communication is blocked or malfunctioning, conflict is created, interpersonal relationships suffer, common projects between people or between companies do not take off. We can trace with a good degree of precision the problem of incommunicability in cultural diversity – a “by-product” of the encounter / comparison between different cultures – an encounter that is as productive and full of opportunities for growth as it is open to risks and problems.
Culture – in the common sense – includes above all the artistic manifestations of a people, but in the social and managerial sciences it means much more. Culture, in a broader sense, above all means a way of perceiving the world, of categorizing reality, giving meaning to things, relationships, and life. Each of us is a unique individual in his personal culture, in the way of categorizing the world, assessing the importance of objects and people, setting up relationships. What is important and fundamental for me can be a detail for someone else, or for others something that doesn’t even deserve attention.
Each of us has assimilated the pressures and patterns of the groups to which they belong (ethnic, national, professional, family) into their own mental processes, and assimilates part of the models they come into contact with. Culture, according to Shore, can be considered a “collection of models”. In building a new relationship, in negotiating, what are the models I use? What models does my company use, often unconsciously? What are the models of others? The negotiation, even before a meeting between “positions”, of divergences / convergences on the details, is a meeting / clash between models.
With this volume I intend to offer a contribution that lays the foundations for both scientific and operational work, aimed at increasing the ability of people and companies to communicate with each other, aware of their differences, in order to grasp the best of the encounter between cultures. different without having to suffer the dark side of incommunicability and avoidable conflict.
Communicating aware of diversity – communicating in diversity and despite diversity – is a significant step forward. Having dealt with the basic themes in this volume, we will examine advanced techniques in future publications. Moreover, towers are not built without having first laid the foundations.
The repercussions of the “fundamental” tools shown here are potentially very strong, for those who work in companies (entrepreneurs, area managers and export managers), for the managers of projects and international relations, in the management of Human Resources (HR), but also for those who work in the social sector (therapists, counselors, educators), in an increasingly multicultural society.
The Four Distances Model for approaching Intercultural Negotiation
The model is based on the concept of relational distance: how people from different cultures can interact effectively or instead generate interactions based on conflict, incommunicability and misunderstandings, is strictly dependent from the feeling of “closeness” or “distance” that emerges in the interaction patterns between intercultural communicators. The 4 Distances Model, originally developed in the area of intercultural semiotics  defines the four main variables that can determine relational distance. Each variable has a subset of more specific hard-type (more tangible) and soft-type (more intangible) sub-variables:
D1 – Distance of the Self. Defined by D1A – Hard Distances: biological differences, chronemics-timing differences between communicators emissions/decoding/feedbacks; D1B – Intangible Distances: identity/role/archetype/personality differences;
D2 – Communication Codes Distances (Semiolinguistic Distance). Defined by D2A: communication content (hard variables); – D2B: codes, subcodes, signs, symbols, language communication styles (soft variables)
D3 – Ideological and value distance: differences in: D3A core values, core beliefs, ideologies, worldviews (hard variables) and D3B peripheral attitudes and beliefs (soft variables)
D4 – Referential distance (personal history); D4A – experience with external world objects, physical experiences (hard variables); D4B internal sensations world, emotional past and present (soft variables)
Each of these “Distances Factor” can be determined by means of observation, psychometric measurements, nonverbal content-analysis and verbal content-analysis. The model has proven to be useful in the analysis of intercultural communication critical incidents, incidents due to intercultural communications misunderstanding, as in the International Space Station case and in reducing misunderstanding in Intercultural Research & Development Engineering Teams.
^Trevisani, D. 1992. A Semiotic Models Approach to the Analysis of International/Intercultural Communication; published in “Proceedings of the International and Intercultural Communication Conference”, University of Miami, fl., USA, 19–21 May 1992
^Stene, Trine Marie; Trevisani, Daniele; Danielsen, Brit-Eli (Dec 16, 2015). “Preparing for the unexpected.”. European Space Agency (ESA) Moon 2020-2030 Conference Proceedings. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4260.9529
^Vilnius University, Vilnius, Lithuania, by Gudauskas, Renaldas; Jokubauskiene, Saulė, et. al. “Intelligent Decision Support System for Leadership Analysis”, in Procedia Engineering, Volume 122, 2015, Elsevier. DOI link: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.proeng.2015.10.022 – Pages 172-180
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