Khmer Proverbs

Another activity for our team retreat aimed at cross-cultural issues is to come up with the most-recalled proverbs from growing up. Though many sayings cross boundaries, the ones best remembered by each group curiously was very telling of their cultural norms and tendencies.

The Germans came up with a list of sayings that depicted a society which valued order, regulation, and punctuality. The Filipino sayings depicted a god-fearing, eternally positive, and family-oriented people. Growing up in the US, adages and mottos which had most to do with taking advantage of opportunity and making money came easily to mind.

Here are some Khmer proverbs, which explain very many things which those of us from the West often frustratingly misunderstand. One which struck me in particular ran along the lines of “the egg cannot fight with or break a rock”, which translated into “might is right”. This explains the submissive nature of our Khmer colleagues to their superiors. They seem frequently impressed when subordinates argue with the boss.


Physical death is better than the death of your reputation (also “family’s reputation”). This explains the collectivist mindset in Asia. Dishonor to your name or your family/group results in being cast off, and that is worse than death.


Dual Translation: (1) Anger begets error; anger begets injury; anger begets waste; and (2) Anger is wrong; anger is wicked; anger is wasteful. This explains the vexing SE Asian trait of never showing emotion, and always smiling even through crises.


The immature rice stock stands erect; the mature stock hangs heavy with seeds.
Those lacking accomplishments (seeds) prop themselves up and boast of themselves (standing erect – a trait of the young). Those heavy with accomplishments have no need for boasting as they have already proven their worth and instead behave with humility (being hunched over – a trait of the elderly). Many sayings show the value of elderly people to society.


Willing to lose is divine; wanting to win is evil. Several beliefs and large-scale tendencies point to the Buddhist belief in accepting fate, so that aiming for achievement is futile.

. . . more proverbs on the Khmer Institute website.

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