Monday, April 1, 2013

Miscommunications in Vietnam

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.

The frustrations of learning Vietnamese

Over the last 5 years, at various points I have tried to learn Vietnamese so that I can integrate better with my family in-law and experience more of Vietnamese culture.  However, I have found it an incredibly hard language to master, and I am sure many of you have experienced similar feelings when learning English or another language.

For me, the most difficult aspect of learning Vietnamese is mastering the different tones and sounds that Vietnamese has, that English doesn’t.  The best example is the ng sound.  In English, this sound is always in the middle or end of words, and it’s very difficult for me to make this sound at the beginning of words where it’s found in Vietnamese.  This is particularly problematic for me when trying to say names correctly.  Being a teacher, it’s embarrassing when I can’t say Ngan correctly, especially as that's my sister in-laws name.

In addition, the tones are incredibly hard for a foreigner to master.  In English, if we call someone’s name, we naturally go up at the end of the name.  However, when saying a Vietnamese name, this could be a huge problem as it might change the meaning of the word.  In fact, I’ve had several occasions where I’ve said a name with the wrong tone, and it has changed a student’s name to an offensive word.  Of course I didn’t mean to do this, and luckily the students have taken my mistake in good spirits.  However, I’m always worried that by saying the wrong name, someone might get very upset or even confrontational because I’ve got the intonation wrong.

Another thing that’s very difficult is to grasp that many words have the same spelling but different meanings depending on their intonation.  Native English speakers are generally able to figure out the meaning of foreigners when they say words incorrectly.  This is probably because we’ve had a lot of exposure to people trying to speak English and know the common errors that people make.  However, the Vietnamese seem to have a big problem in trying to understand words that foreigners say incorrectly.  This is probably because it’s only quite recently (15 years or so) when foreigners started living here and before then, there was very little reason for foreigners to learn Vietnamese.  Even so, it is very frustrating for me when I try to speak Vietnamese but no-one can understand anything I say.    

To finish I had an amusing conversation with my Xe om driver a week ago.  I said ‘Can you take me to district 7?’ in Vietnamese.  He said ‘Sorry I don’t speak English’.  I said again, in Vietnamese ‘Can you take me to district 7.'  He said ‘No speak English’.  Then I said ‘Do you speak Vietnamese?’ in Vietnamese.  He said ‘yes’.  Then I said ‘Listen.  I’m speaking in Vietnamese.  Can you take me to district 7?’  He replied ‘Ah district 7!  I know it!’.  Why have I told you this story?  Well that’s a good question.  Usually when Vietnamese people see a foreigner, they expect them not to know Vietnamese and to speak in English.  Therefore, when a foreigner speaks in Vietnamese, the local thinks they’re talking in English, when in fact they are speaking in Vietnamese.  Obviously this will result in a mis-communication which is actually quite frustrating for someone who is learning another language.

As I said before, I’m sure many of you have shared similar experiences when trying to learn English, but believe me, I (and many other foreigners in Vietnam) have gone through exactly the same in learning your language.  Please sympathise with us when we try to use your language as it’s very difficult for us to learn!