Any time that communication is required, whether that be in the same lingo or multiple languages, there is always the potential for the message to be misunderstood. This can cause minor inconveniences and result in a chuckle or two, but it can also lead to more problematic scenarios, bringing about stress and frustration. In most cases, instances of miscommunication can be avoided and cleared up very easily, but in Vietnam, this is not always true.
One of the biggest problems many foreign teachers or business people face in Vietnam is the reluctance of many Vietnamese workers or students to admit when they don’t understand something. Often, a foreigner will ask a local if they’ve understood the instructions given to them, and of course, the worker will nod their head, smile and say ‘I understand’. In a culture where people are scared to lose face by admitting that they are wrong or don’t comprehend something, especially in-front of their peers, this can lead to potentially serious problems.
In Western culture, we are always taught that if we don’t understand something, we should always seek clarification and not proceed with something until we know exactly what is expected of us. It’s seen as imprudent to attempt a task without understanding what we have to do, and managers and seniors are always willing to give clarification or re-issue instructions should that be required. Workers and students don’t feel embarrassed or ‘stupid’ if they don’t understand something, and having the confidence to ask for help is considered to be a strength rather than a weakness.
In Vietnam, the opposite appears to be true. When communicating with foreigners, many Vietnamese people won’t admit when they don’t understand something. This ranges from students not understanding tasks or vocabulary in a classroom, a waitress misunderstanding an order in a restaurant or a receptionist mishearing the dates a tourist wants to stay at a hotel. In most cases, the miscommunication causes small problems like the wrong food or drink being served, or a new piece of vocabulary being used in a harmless yet incorrect context. However, these mistakes could easily be avoided if people sought clarification and had the courage to admit they didn’t completely understand something.
Although I’ve used the example of foreigners communicating with local people, the problem in communication runs much deeper than the language barrier. In Vietnam, employees are also very eager to please both their managers and their customers. This sometimes comes at the expense of honesty. Employees tend to say what they think the other person wants to hear, rather than tell them a truth they don’t want to hear. A small example of this is a motorbike mechanic telling a stricken motorcyclist that it will take him 5 minutes to fix his tyre. The motorist is happy as if the job only takes 5 minutes, he can arrive at work on time. However, in reality it takes 15 minutes and the motorist is late for work and gets in trouble for not informing his manager as he thought he would be on time.
While this may seem like insignificant and trivial example, it nevertheless highlights several differences between Western and Vietnamese culture. In the first case, the mechanic clearly knew that the job would take longer than 5 minutes, and therefore, should have given a more honest approximation of the time it would take. This is a common frustration that foreigners face in business. Employees, in their eagerness to please their managers, frequently give their managers unachievable time frames to complete a task. This invariably leads to deadlines being missed and projects running behind schedule. The second problem is the motorist’s failure to inform his manager that he would be late. While being late in most cases might not be a serious problem, the non-calling to the manager, presumably as he didn’t want to let his manager down, again highlights that saving face and not owning up to mistakes is common in Vietnamese culture.
As always, I’m not saying that these problems are unique to Vietnam, or that they don’t happen in the UK. These things are of course evident throughout the world and I’ve certainly been guilty of doing these things myself. It just appears that a failure to seek clarification and simply saying what someone thinks the other person wants to hear is more common in Vietnamese culture than in the West. Simply seeking clarification and owning up to errors could easily remove the frustrations that many foreigners feel on a daily basis and ease communication problems, especially in cross cultural and language exchanges.