Language & Customs


The Karen languages are comprised of a group of languages spoken primarily in the coastal areas of Thailand and in the lower regions of Burma. There are three main Karen languages and many dialects. The main types are S’ghaw (pronounced Skaw) Karen, Western Pwo Karen and Eastern Pwo Karen. S’ghaw is spoken by over one million people in Burma, and Thailand. Sometimes people have different accents, making it difficult to understand each other. Generally, S’ghaw is the common language as a lot of Pwo Karen also speak S’ghaw. On the other hand, S’ghaw Karen don’t necessarily speak Pwo. Only a small percentage of Karen speak Thai. Around 1830 an American Baptist Missionary created a written script for the Karen, this was developed from the Burmese alphabet.

General Etiquette

Traditionally, Karen people do not have surnames, which may cause confusion. Instead, terms of kinship are generally used to address one another.  The Karen also do not shake hands or bow. With experience from Western culture, some Karen may shake hands. However, the Karen might greet with their right hand, supporting the right forearm with the left hand as it is a sign of respect to use both hands.

In S’ghaw Karen, people will say Good morning (Kaw Leh Ah Gay), Good Afternoon (Ni Leh Ah Gay), Good evening (Ha Leh Ah Gay) and Good Night (Na Leh Ah Gay).

Do not confuse or refer to the Karen as Burmese. Ethnically, they are an entirely different group and many do not speak Burmese. Although the Karen have come from the country of Burma, it is not by choice. In addition, the Karen were driven from their homes by the Burmese. Hence, many Karen will not identify with the Burmese in a positive light. The political stance of the Karen will vary with their experience. However, instead of referring to them as Burmese unless the person corrects you, it is much better to refer to people by their ethnic group (Karen, Chin, Karenni, Kachin, Shan etc.).

In Karen culture, being direct is considered rude. The American way of communication such as being direct, use of loud speech, and body language can be uncomfortable for most Karen. Decisions are usually made by consensus and confrontation is avoided. Conflict may be addressed in a group or by an intermediary. Displays of anger are not respected and should be avoided. Within American culture, politeness can sometimes lead to misunderstandings as the Karen may not directly say if their needs are not being met or if they disagree.

Women are very affectionate with each other, as are men with men. Examples include holding hands or hugging, but not kissing. These displays of affection do not indicate a gender preference. In public, it is uncommon or traditional for women and men to touch.

Tips to build Rapport with a Karen person or refugee from Burma:

  • Use friendly greetings.
  • Smile often and speak with a quiet, soft voice.
  • Ask about their religion, culture.
  • In school or work, offer encouragement by complimenting their willingness to learn.
  • Do not approach issues too directly. You may have to rephrase questions differently if you don’t receive an answer.

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