Savvy Service Sector Changing Language to Increase Sales

FILE: A Cambodian man (L) buys a coffee at a mobile coffee shop along a street in Phnom Penh, February 13, 2015. (Photo: AFP)
  • Lim Tola
  • June 25, 2020 4:13 AM

PHNOM PENH--Recently younger Cambodians working in the service industry have taken to referring to older men with the term “Bong”—the polite equivalent of older brother or older sister. The age gap inferred by “Bong” is can be as much as 10 years, but the usage of “Bong” has evolved to encompass lovers as well. It is not uncommon to hear wives and girlfriends refer to their husbands and boyfriends as “Bong.”

However, these days the term “Bong” is being used as a marketing technique, along with the term “Boss.”

While traditionally, Khmer women—regardless of their age—would usually refer to men as “Pu” or “Uncle” as a means of avoiding misunderstanding, now those in the service sector have taken to using “Bong” for all male customers. 

Speaking with Cambodianess, two vendors explained why they have swapped out the traditional “Pu” for “Bong” when dealing with male customers. 

“If I call the customers “Pu” or “Uncle” obviously in relation to their age, the customers might blame me, saying that this word makes them appear old, which they are not happy about,” explained one vendor who wished to remain anonymous. 

More and more customers are apparently demanding to be referred to as “Bong” for fear of being branded a “Pu” and bearing the age-related associations that come with it. So much has this phenomenon peaked in fact that another vendor said she has heard employers recommend calling all male customers “Bong” rather than any age-specific term.

This, she said, often tends to result in a larger tip and can make the whole transaction much smoother, whereas to highlight a customer’s age may lead to confrontation. 

However, while “Pu” may denote age, it also confers a certain degree of rank or prestige on a customer—this is of course lost when the customer is referred to as “Bong” and to counter this, the term “Mé” or “Boss” has also grown in popularity. 

Cries of “Where are you heading, boss?” or “Greetings boss!” can be heard more frequently on the streets of Phnom Penh as vendors try to woo their quarry. 

The key difference between “Bong” and “Mé”—“Brother” and “Boss” respectively—is the assumption of status that “Boss” implies, whereas “Brother” merely flatters the customer and plays on their insecurities about ageing. 

Regardless of which is better, there is a clear linguistic development that is founded on the basic economic principles of keeping the customer happy—even if this means exaggerating the youth or status of a customer. More extensive research would need to be conducted to establish whether there is a direct link between increased sales or tips and the use of “Bong” or “Mé.”


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