After working in Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon) for a month, I’m much more familiar with the business norms of Vietnam. The main difference between Vietnam and Western business culture is how every interaction is determined by very formal rules of hierarchy that privileges the community over the individual. The concept of saving face imposes a certain order that can be very confusing. For example, Vietnamese rarely disagree in a business meeting and a statement that would be inoffensive in the West (e.g., “I have a different opinion”) would be considered very rude, especially if said by someone junior in status. When people in Vietnam disagree, there is silence, often for a long time.
Let’s Get Down to Business
I learned that even routine requests in Vietnam may feel like criticism and create loss of face. For example, my client rented me a very luxurious apartment for the month. Remarkably, no one had thought to prepare the apartment besides arranging for a bed and sheets. It had no housekeeping necessities: no dishes, cups, towels, not even toilet paper. I made do the first night and then said something to the administrative assistant who is assigned to support me. She looked absolutely stricken and paralyzed by humiliation. She was so relieved when I said I’d handle it. So I quietly went to the supermarket to stock up. Lesson: make do, never complain, and if you don’t like something, quietly figure it out. Requests often come off as complaints.
Here are a few more lessons I learned.
1 When in Doubt, Use Two Hands. Use two hands presenting anything (a plate of food, a present, a document, credit card, business card). Clerks will hand you your change with two hands. Even handshakes (same sex only) are often done with two hands, with the left hand over the right wrist. Business cards are a special case: present with two hands, receive with two hands and then make a big show of inspecting the other person’s card, shake your head knowingly in recognition of their importance. Do not write on it or put it in your pocket. Bring ten times as many business cards as you think you’ll need. Even trivial (to me) interactions frequently call for an exchange of cards. It appears there are no trivial interactions in Vietnam.
2 Avoid Pointing with your Fingers. Especially at people. Use your whole hand if you have to point. Better yet, don’t point.
3 Hierarchy is Key. Five relationships (Ruler and Subject, Husband and wife, Parents and Children, Brothers and Sisters, Friend and Friend) govern relationships. Try to remember at all times who has the senior status. Vietnam is a very hierarchical society and these relationships, defined by Confucianism, govern the obligations of people toward one another.
4 Be On Time. Vietnamese are punctual and expect others to be so, too. I had a meeting at 10 AM. I walked in at 10:02. By 10:01, the associate I was meeting with had texted me announcing that he was waiting. Business meetings require appointments and tend to be more formal than American interactions.
5 Take Off Your Shoes. Anytime you enter personal space of any kind, take off your shoes before entering. A good clue: shoes outside the door. Homes and shrines, definitely, but sometimes offices and meeting rooms. Now that you have your shoes off, take care never to point the bottom of your feet at other people or sacred objects. Every home has a Buddha shrine. Know where it is.
6 Watch Your Body Language. Behaviors unremarkable in the West will be considered quite rude in Vietnam. Here’s a short list of infractions I unwittingly made: insisting on eye contact, standing with hands on my hips, crossing my arms on my chest, passing something over someone’s head, crossing my fingers (as in the sign for good luck; in Vietnam it’s bad luck), touching people on their shoulder, touching children on the head. The last one I’ve learned is especially offensive; In Asia, the head is the spiritual high point of the body.
7 Smile When you Say That. Vietnamese smile easily and often in ways considered disconcerting by Westerners. For example, Vietnamese workers often smile when they are embarrassed or criticized. This is an attempt to save face. I’ve seen Western managers enraged by the smile of a Vietnamese subordinate whose work they are criticizing, as if they are not taking the process seriously. The opposite is the case.