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Salutation, etiquette, manner etc: Hierarchical nature of Bangladesh Society

May 17, 2015

Nice finding at:

Bangladesh got 80 whereas Ireland gets 28. So Bangladesh is basically a very highly hierarchical society. Surprisingly Malaysia has 104. its true because when I visited Malaysia that different titles are attached to people in all salutations.

Interesting facts about greetings, hierarchy, manners of Bangladesh could be found in the following sites:

For example, Bangladeshis will phrase sentiments in such as way that it is up to people to read between the lines to understand what is being implied.  Phrases such as ‘we will try’ or ‘that may be difficult’ may really mean ‘this cannot be done’.

Bangladesh is a hierarchical society.
o People are respected because of their age and position.
o Older people are naturally viewed as wise and are granted respect.
o Bangladeshis expect the most senior male, by age or position, to make decisions that are in the best interest of the group. This is also valid in businesses, the majority of which will be family owned/run.

Naming conventions are very much based on the hierarchical nature of Bangladeshi society.
o Bangladeshis will append a suffix to a person’s name to denote respect and the level of closeness between the two people.
In general, age dictates how people are addressed.
o If people are of the same age, they use first names.
o If the person being addressed is older than the speaker, the person is called by their first name and a suffix that denotes the family relationship.

If invited to a meal it is rude to flatly turn the invitation down. One should always use less direct language to suggest that it may be difficult such as “I will try.” or “I will have to see”.

Ensure you wash your hands before eating.
o Guests are generally served first then the oldest, continuing in order of seniority.
o Do not start eating until the oldest person at the table begins.

The need to avoid a loss of face is also reflected in communication styles. Rather than say no or disappoint people Bangladeshis will phrase sentiments in such as way that it is up to people to read between the lines to understand what is being implied. Phrases such as “we will try”, “that may be difficult”, or “we will have to give that some though” may really mean “this can’t be done”. . Therefore, it is important to ask questions in several ways so you can be certain what was meant by a vague response. Silence is often used as a communication tool.
o Many people comment on the lack of smiles in Bangladesh. This has nothing to do with unfriendliness but rather related to the fact that a serious face is believed to demonstrate maturity.

The above also states same about Bangladesh power distance or hierarchy as follows:

Bangladesh scores high on this dimension (score of 80) which means that people accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. Hierarchy in an organization is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, centralization is popular, subordinates expect to be told what to do and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat

Belief based groups it considered politics and religion within the same group. It is interesting and reflects the current scenario in Bangladesh and many other parts of the world.

it provides the definite of culture as Culture is made up of both visible and invisible aspects. Visible culture includes those things that we consider products or cultural creations such as art, political and economic institutions, dress, food as well as non-verbal communication language, tone, volume, customs and traditions. “Invisible” or subjective culture on the other hand, informs the visible aspects and includes values, the way we use language and our worldview. 3 A common metaphor used to explain the difference is the iceberg. There are things that are above the waterline that we can see and a much larger number of things that are more unconscious under the waterline. Intercultural frameworks that name the invisible aspects of culture help us to understand what we are seeing.

Stratification in Bangladesh Society: a very good research paper

Different classes in Bangladesh

Dr Ann, an Irish national who worked as volunteer in a govt organisaiton of Bangladesh, provides real life experience from the perspective of a westerner in her blog:

Some excerpts from her blog relevant to the topic of hierarchy in Bangladesh Society appear below:

I have mentioned in other posts how hierarchical Bangladeshi society is, and it is difficult not to notice the inequality between people – in government, in organisations and even within families. Interpersonal relationships, at all levels, are governed by the principle of hierarchy, and based on a person’s status, social position, educational attainment, seniority and gender. I think it is this aspect of the culture, and the associated behavioural norms, that trouble me most – both at work and outside work. Most people that I meet accept (and expect) power to be distributed unequally. It’s part of Bangladeshi culture and it permeates every layer of society. People tend to grovel and kowtow to those ‘above’ them, and often dismiss and humiliate those ‘below’ them. The result of this is that there is very little meaningful, cooperative interaction across power levels. This aspect of behaviour was very significant and had very real consequences in my work situation (see  post 25 and post 48).

I wonder what cultural faux pas I am making and indeed I have already had one socially painful experience. This happened because I used a person’s first name. Now I was well aware of the hierarchical conventions in the organisation. Indeed I made a point of asking the Director General at our first meeting how he would like me to address him. (Everybody else addresses him as ‘Sir’, as indeed all ‘subordinates’ address their ‘superiors’ in the organisation.) However, he told me to call him by his first name and so I did.  This was fine during our one-to-one encounters. While in the office of a director, with other colleagues present, I inadvertently let slip the Director General’s first name in conversation, and the director in question was aghast. He immediately switched to Bangla and I could only imagine what he was saying to the other staff members in the room. His tone of voice sounded irate. I caught bits of it. About ‘DG Sir’ and ‘name’ and ‘volunteer’, and all the time I stood there with radiating red cheeks. (As it turned out there was another possible explanation too for the unfriendliness of this particular director – see post 48.)

also question my mode of working. Culturally, I suppose I expect a certain degree of straight-forwardness at work. However, I now know that I am not getting a ‘true reading’ during my meetings and encounters with colleagues.  There’s quite a bit of ‘saving face’. I’m finding too that people don’t want to give constructive criticism, or challenge my ideas, because they want to avoid giving offence. Instead, they drag their feet when it comes to cooperating or supporting project implementation efforts. Again, time is required to get to the bottom of this. Another thing I’m having difficulty with is the lack of any culture of planning. Thinking ahead constructively is central to the way that I work, but people just don’t ‘plan’ here. (See post 48.) This requires changing the way that I go about my work. Instead of planning to meet somebody, I have to try to meet them ‘spontaneously’.  This means I have to try to find them first, and if they are not in their offices, or otherwise engaged, I have to go away and try again later. It’s so much more time-consuming this way. In practice, it could take days (or even weeks) to ‘meet’ someone. (The absence of a culture of planning was something I was to encounter again and again, and not just in relation to my work. For example, when I was trying to ‘plan’ my trip to the Sunderbans (see post 38), I couldn’t get dates for the Ramadan break from any of my colleagues. I was to discover later that these dates are subject to annual change, and dependent on moon sightings (see post 37). Even the ‘calendar’ militates against planning!) In addition to difficulties with planning at work, I am also having problems trying to instigate changes (however small). This is because there doesn’t appear to be a culture of reasoned argument. I am used to laying out my reasons, and following a certain line of logic, in order to make an argument for a particular course of action, which might result in changing someone’s mind. Or not, of course, if the other person convinces me in a similar manner. So, for example, when I explained carefully and at length, why spending my time in the NILG editing texts would not fulfil the function of my placement, and suggested that holding workshops or sessions to explore and solve the difficulties would be a more sustainable solution, people would agree and say ‘ji, ji’ (‘yes, yes’) but then proceed, the very next day, to ask me to edit a text!

nobody wrote a meeting date in a diary here, so how could they remember it? Yet, a meeting that was essential might occur instantaneously.


I ended my last work-related post (25) with the term Insha’Allah (God willing). In retrospect, this was very appropriate and almost prophetic (albeit unintentionally so). I have since discovered that the meaning of the term Insha’Allah cannot easily be expressed in English. Yes, Insha’Allah does mean ‘God willing’, or ‘hopefully’, as I had used it in that last post, and it is used too in relation to an event in the future. However, for us the future is malleable: we envision ‘outcomes’, we set ‘goals’ and we create ‘actions’. One of the basic tenets of Islam is that we humans have no business planning for the future: that’s Allah’s department. Insha’Allah is therefore a term of fatalism: it is resigned, passive and accepting, neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It is the opposite of ‘can-do’. It is often used too when there is no hope whatsoever of something happening. ‘We will have that meeting tomorrow, Insha’Allah’. Or, ‘Insha’Allah you will get a phone’, implying that it is not Allah’s wish and, therefore, you will not be getting one. It can even cover uncertainty: ‘The government official will call tomorrow between 4 and 6, Insha’Allah’. That means that you do not know if s/he will come before 4, after 6, at the allocated time or even at all. And if there is a pause between the end of the sentence and the Insha’Allah, it means either that the person is not so sure any more, or just can’t be bothered. Yes indeed, I have experienced all forms of the Insha’Allah. In fact, I sometimes think that the Insh’Allah philosophy could be a metaphorical thread connecting many of my work experiences in Dhaka. (Of course, this fatalistic acceptance of Allah’s will serves the people of Bangladesh well too, fortifying them against fear in the face of the many disasters they must encounter.)

There were complex social and cultural issues at play too though.  Much of the behaviour that I encountered daily at work was very obviously governed by the principles of hierarchy and power-distance (see post 13). At first I was quite taken aback by the unquestioning, sycophantic bowing-and-scraping of my colleagues to those of higher rank, throughout the organisation. I was equally taken aback at the corresponding dismissal, and often disdain, shown towards those of lower rank through curt commands. Many factors determine one’s position in this hierarchical system: social position, status, educational background, seniority and gender. Roles and duties in relation to others are defined by the norms and values of this system. There is obedience and deference and a show of outward respect towards ‘superiors’ (those in authority or in positions of higher rank). Subordinates, or those of lower rank, seek affirmation, direction and guidance before making any decisions. Traditionally, those who are seen as loyal to their superiors can expect favour (even if it is unwarranted in terms of performance). The ‘power-distance’ inherent in this master-servant type relationship prohibits any meaningful cooperation across power levels. It inhibits collaboration and participation in decision-making and does not encourage holding those in power accountable for their actions. From discussions with other volunteers (and from my own experience of VSO Bangladesh), the dynamics of power-distance were less apparent in the NGO sector than in the government sector.

I knew that such powerlessness must inevitably lead to acts of resistance wherever possible. I began to notice the manifestation of this resistance in resentment and dragging of feet and silent acts of noncooperation. Furthermore, there is a palpable lack of openness and trust. Sometimes it is quite obvious (to me at any rate) that the extreme show of ingratiating, sugarcoated ‘respect’ towards superiors is blatantly insincere.

It was difficult to negotiate a path within this social and cultural milieu. First of all it took people a long time, if ever, to try to ‘place’ me: an outsider, a foreigner, a woman, a volunteer, a PhD, unmarried – in short, an enigma. I immediately became ‘Dr. Ann’: people were visibly uncomfortable when I introduced myself as ‘Ann’. Education is highly respected in Bangladesh.

In time, I began to recognise and understand the very different culture of working that I was now a part of. For example, I understood that the lack of transparency, decision-making, planning and reasoned argument (all of which were central to my culture of working), were embedded and entwined with deeper cultural issues (see post 25 too). (Even understanding the meaning of the ‘Insh’Allah’, discussed at the outset of this post, provided additional insights.) I had expected cultural difference and I knew that understanding it, while working effectively within it, would be challenging

I come back again to those two motifs of ‘struggle’ (sangram) and ‘waiting’ that seem to characterise so much of life in Bangladesh. Trying to carry out ‘tasks’ at work involved a lot of ‘waiting’: waiting for a meeting to occur, waiting for a decision, waiting for action….. More than once it struck me that I could have been on the set of Waiting for Godot, a play by Irish Nobel laureate, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989): I heard the words of Vladimir and Estragon daily.

Estragon: Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.

Vladimir: Let’s wait and see what he says.


From → Travel

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