In Vietnam, every single one of
these emotions can be a smile.

[Note: On June 30th of this year I solicited questions and topics from readers. This is one of those topics. If you have a question or topic you’re curious about, use the form at right to email me, or leave it in the comments!]

QUESTION: Interpersonal communication. This might be a difficult topic to tackle before you get a good hold on the language, but what factors beyond the words themselves convey meaning? Are there certain linguistic rituals which are expected which aren’t synchronous with behavioral expectations? For example, we ask, “How’s it going?” with the expectation that people will say, “good,” and not honestly tell us how things are going.

ANSWER: Great question, and since you’ve asked, let’s pick it apart. After four months I’ve racked up enough interaction points to make some subjective observations about Vietnamese non-verbal communication.

Initially, I didn’t recognize much of what I was seeing. In Vietnam, your actions can reflect on not only yourself, but your conversational partner and even the people surrounding you (if you’re in public). It’s a kind of social norm reinforcement, in many ways. Vietnam is a culturally conservative country and this reinforcement keeps it so on many levels.

Cultural communication quirks are many and subtle, and it’s taken me a lot of time to pinpoint some of the weirdest ones. Floundering about, whipping English and broken Vietnamese around willy-nilly, my chief concern was mostly “how do I get what I want?” and not “what the hell is happening in this conversation?” because it was so RARELY a real conversation. This has slowly changed, and I now feel comfortable making the following observations based on my experiences so far.

Without further ado…:

  • The most frustrating trait is either an apparent inability or lack of desire to get to the point of any conversation. It can take some super-fancy conversational footwork to extract certain pieces of information from people, and it’s often related to the need to save face – but it’s not just theirs that they look out for, they’re looking out for your face, too. This is related to the top-tier cultural priority of preserving harmony. If they don’t know an answer, they’ll give you the answer they think you want, and presto! You’re momentarily happy. Until you realize that no one is going to tell you where to get Da Lat candy, and that it actually can’t be found at this market at all.
  • If a conflict arises, withdrawal is favored – being assertive indicates a lack of respect. I’ve seen this several times at the office. Many times I will get two conflicting sets of instruction for the same task, but the boss’s take is always right. Mistakes are not admitted. Everyone just goes on with their lives and jobs as if this kind of behavior is normal, which it is.
  • If a person has a problem, they will not ask for help. I see this every day with my students. They are berated for asking for help – traditionally, problems must be concealed and held within the family network, and this crosses over into problems in the classroom. I’ve developed keen antennae for sensing when a child has a problem, and I expect to get better at it.
Copyright Gary Larson, The Far Side.
Disturbingly applicable to Vietnamese.
  • Smiles. Good lord, a smile means a million things. Initially I was all like, “Wow! These Vietnamese are so friendly!” and it was only after many, many interactions that ended in smiles, when they wouldn’t have in America, that I began to piece together the truth: a smile can mean almost anything. It can conceal embarrassment, guilt, fear, appreciation, or anger. It’s an apology, a thank you, or a hello. It conveys mild disagreement and also disbelief. In addition (and this is the most maddening to me), it is the proper response to discipline, even in the classroom. It is supposed to show that they understand the fault committed, yet I’m not sure I believe that. This was by far the least obvious non-verbal trait.
It was only recently that patterns began to emerge for me. Every day is a social adventure.