THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURE
Many Americans fail to see the unique set of traits and approaches they bring to international business dealings. Some of these traits are so ingrained in their psyche that they don't even realize they may differ in other cultures. Americans show they are listening respectfully, for example, by staring into the speaker's eyes as he or she talks. In much of Asia, however, including Vietnam, staring directly into a person's eyes is considered discourteous. Respect in such cultures is shown by keeping one's eyes lowered while someone in authority is speaking. Although Vietnamese who are used to dealing with Americans might understand their behavior, an uninformed American might interpret a Vietnamese's lack of eye contact to indicate lack of interest or respect. This small example illustrates the ease with which misunderstandings can occur if both parties fail to study the culturally conditioned behaviors of the other.
All cultures have developed certain styles, methods, and actions considered appropriate for interpersonal communication. These often vary greatly among cultures, as will be indicated below. Like most Asian cultures, for example, Vietnam is considered to be "high-context" when it comes to communications. In such a culture, the context - situation, place, attitude, non-verbal behavior, and gestures - is more important than the words spoken in a meeting. Americans, on the other hand, are considered "low-context"; words carry the message, and the context in which they are spoken is relatively unimportant. This major difference between the two cultures will have an obvious impact on the communication process itself as well as on the perceptions a person from each culture might carry away from a meeting. By understanding this and other cultural differences, however, American executives can adjust their communication style and behavior appropriately to put their message across.
SOME VIETNAMESE CULTURAL CHARACTERISTICS
Although culture encompasses many areas, we will examine only a few of those relevant to business situations. These include attitudes toward time, personal relationships, individual and group dynamics, gender issues, and age. It should be noted that in most of these areas, Vietnamese attitudes are very different from those of Americans.
Concepts of Time
Like most Asians, the Vietnamese have a more extended concept of time than that of most Americans. The agrarian nature of their traditional society focuses on seasons rather than days or weeks. And this tradition is reinforced by the Confucian tradition of respect for earlier generations. Americans measure time by the clock, Vietnamese by the monsoon.
Although this is changing somewhat, Vietnamese can still be expected to take a longer view of time and be suspicious of the need for urgency in making decisions or culminating a business deal. Patience remains the ultimate Confucian virtue in personal life as well as in business.
In Vietnam, propriety and courtesy play a major role in personal relationships. Vietnamese are generally more interpersonally formal than are Americans. This formality decreases the uncertainty surrounding interpersonal contacts in Vietnamese society and is carried over into the business realm for the same reasons. During initial meetings with Vietnamese officials, you can expect little real business to be accomplished. The Vietnamese will concentrate on getting to know you - your background, your expertise, your character. In their high-context communication culture, they will depend heavily on non-verbal clues to assess meaning. By becoming acquainted and establishing a personal relationship with you, they are merely trying to understand you better.
Vietnamese society is comprised of an interconnected network of personal relationships, all of which carry obligations on both sides. These mutual obligations are the underpinnings of social order in Vietnam, so they are taken very seriously. Americans need to understand and be sensitive to the serious nature of what may seem to them to be casual business relations. Failure to do so could easily result in a loss of trust or credibility, with obvious implications for longer-term relationships.
Individual and Group Dynamics
Vietnamese consider themselves part of a larger collective, generally centered on the family or clan. Individual needs are considered subordinate to those of their family or organization. Conformity to familial and social norms is an important goal. Americans, on the other hand, are highly individualistic, believing in the primacy of the individual as a highly valued ideal.
These differences in values and outlook can have significant implications for business transactions. Praising or singling out an individual for attention or to reward in public, for example, is embarrassing to the individual concerned and will likely be counterproductive. Public rewards are best given to groups, not individuals. Although this cultural characteristic may change over time, it remains prudent to proffer individual rewards in private.
The same general rule is even more important when it comes to criticism or censure. Vietnamese culture considers "face," an individual's public image, extremely important. Any overt public criticism or disparaging remarks can result in a loss of face and cause extreme embarrassment. For this reason, criticism is best handled privately and, if possible, indirectly.
In Vietnam, the ultimate goal of all personal interactions is harmony, not discord. Like many Asians, Vietnamese will try to avoid conflict and direct confrontation. A direct refusal or negative answer is considered impolite and crude, often leading Vietnamese to agree to something even when they have no intention of carrying it out. From a Vietnamese perspective, this is not considered to be untruthful; it is simply the means for maintaining a harmonious relationship. This Vietnamese attribute offers great potential for cross-cultural misunderstandings with Americans, for whom disagreement and negative responses are merely a part of the negotiating process and have nothing to do with interpersonal relationships.
Vietnamese society is outwardly egalitarian in accord with Marxist ideology, but continues to exhibit paternalistic, male-dominant attitudes in business and most official activities. So when Vietnamese women hold key positions, they are accorded the respect due that position, even if such is not the case in their personal lives.
On the other hand, foreign women professionals are accepted in Vietnam, particularly if they have high status in their company or strong professional reputations. Such individuals will be treated with the respect their position demands. Business women lacking such status will find it harder to be taken seriously in Vietnam.
Attitudes Toward Age
Like other Confucian cultures, Vietnamese believe that respect for the elderly is a cardinal virtue. Age carries experience and wisdom, and in the traditional extended family the word of the father or grandfather is law. This attitude extends into the business arena. The oldest member of a foreign delegation is often treated with great deference, regardless of his official position or rank. Likewise, it is always appropriate for Americans to defer to the older members of Vietnamese groups by being especially respectful and solicitous.
The corollary to this respect for age is a difficulty in taking young people seriously, especially when it comes to having business expertise or making important decisions. Although this attitude may shift as Vietnam is exposed to the relative youth of many American business executives, it should be recognized as an important characteristic of Vietnamese culture.
BUSINESS PROTOCOL IN VIETNAM
With this brief discussion of Vietnamese cultural characteristics as background, some specific advice may now be offered regarding doing business in Vietnam. Some of the more common business situations that arise in the course of visiting Vietnam will be covered. But these suggestions should also serve as a useful background for dealing with Vietnamese business officials elsewhere.
Business connections in Vietnam are best established by mail before arriving in the country. Even if you have already met a Vietnamese official or another contact outside Vietnam, it is still best to arrange for a visit and make appropriate business appointments in Vietnam by letter or other correspondence before your arrival. This allows your contact to clear your visit with the appropriate government organs and to set up an appropriate agenda for your trip.
Do not be surprised if a response to your written request is not immediately forthcoming; Vietnam's pervasive government bureaucracy reacts very slowly. A period of several months between a request and a response is not unusual. Your request will be expedited if you give your Vietnamese contacts a good sense of what it is you want to accomplish in Vietnam. This helps reduce uncertainty and any concerns they or the government may have about your intentions.
In written correspondence, adopt a formal style, using the title and full name of your contact, such as Deputy Minister Nguyen Van Tuan. Vietnamese prefer to be addressed by their first or given name, rather than their family name. For example, Mr. Nguyen Van Tuan, a company director, would be addressed as Director Tuan, not as Director Nguyen. Courteous language and a respectful closing - "with warmest regards," "with deepest respect," and so on - are important as well.
Westerners are generally given a brief handshake upon meeting in business situations. Not everyone uses this gesture, but it is widely understood in business or official situations. When meeting a Vietnamese woman, however, wait for her to extend a hand first. She may simply nod or bow slightly, the most common form of greeting in Vietnam.
As with written correspondence, use titles and first names ("Deputy Minister Cuong") or simply tides ("Thank you, Deputy Director") in conversation. Use of given names should be reserved only for close friends in very informal situations. A common Vietnamese formal greeting is "Chao Ong" when addressing men and "Chao Ba" when addressing women, literally meaning "Hello, Mr." or "Hello, Ms."
Business cards are usually exchanged at all first meetings. They are important in Asia because they provide explicit indications of an individual's position and status. Though not absolutely necessary, business cards with one side printed in Vietnamese are appreciated. These can be obtained before leaving the United States.
Polite conversation and small talk are an important part of establishing relationships in Vietnam. As a high-context culture, Vietnamese want to get to know you as a person before settling down to business. By understanding your background, personality, and interests, they are better able to comprehend your verbal and non-verbal communication, which helps decrease uncertainty and ambiguity in the relationship. This often means that a first meeting - or even the first several meetings - are spent discussing what Americans would consider to be nonproductive topics. Have patience and recognize that their evaluation of you as an individual will bear directly on your success or failure in business dealings.
Personal distance - the physical distance at which people feel comfortable conversing with others - is generally greater in Vietnam than in the West, unless a personal relationship has been well established. Americans generally feel most comfortable about 18 inches away from the person with whom they are speaking. Latin American and Middle Eastern cultures prefer to stand even closer. In contrast, most Asian cultures stay slightly farther away. In addition, Vietnamese do not like to be touched or patted on the back or shoulders in social situations.
Always try to project an appearance of calm and a benign attitude in social or business situations. Never show emotion, and try not to show any evidence of impatience. Keep in mind that in Vietnam, "face" or status is critically important. Belittling or openly criticizing a Vietnamese, even in jest, can cause irreparable damage to a relationship. Likewise, losing your temper or becoming angry causes you to lose "face" and is considered a demonstration of immaturity.
As indicated above, the Vietnamese as a people do not like to say "no" because a refusal implies disrespect and interferes with the harmony of the relationship. They are not being dishonest or devious but are simply demonstrating that they value the relationship more than a mere fact. Understand this and try to phrase your questions to take it into account. For example, rather than asking "Will it be ready by Tuesday?" ask "When will it be ready?" Continuous exposure to Western business methods may eventually change this cultural trait, but such change will likely occur slowly. In the meantime, a negative response can often be inferred from the hesitancy in answering or from a statement such as "It may be inconvenient" or "It will be very difficult." If you sense this, try to rephrase the question in such a way that your respondent will not have to say "no."
When engaging in social conversation, there are certain topics that should be avoided. These include sex, politics, communism, the Vietnam war, religion, and any inference of Vietnamese inferiority in any area. Likewise, jokes and humor usually do not translate well into other cultures and should be avoided in all but the most informal situations. Safe topics for discussion include your own background and hobbies, your family, your counterpart's family, international sports, Vietnamese culture (including literature, poetry, music, and traditions), language, and food. Exchanging information about one's family and personal interests are a key part of the process of establishing relationships in Vietnam and should be expected. Remember, business will be addressed only after these social niceties are observed.
Most business luncheons and dinners are held in hotels, restaurants, or government facilities. Usually your host will arrange for a dinner during the early part of your visit. You are expected to reciprocate by arranging for a return dinner, possibly in your hotel or at a well-known restaurant. If no formal dinner is indicated on your itinerary, you should still try to invite your hosts to dinner to show your thanks and appreciation for their arrangements. Business is not usually discussed at dinners, although it may be at luncheons.
Dinner in Vietnam usually consists of several courses, similar to a Chinese banquet. Several dishes will be put on the table and you will be expected to take some from each. Chopsticks are used in Vietnam, but most modern restaurants also have Western eating utensils.
Vietnamese beer or imported wines and liquor are usually served with the meal. It is appropriate for you and your host to exchange toasts, with the host usually going first. Individual toasts can also be expected during the meal. When toasting your host (or when acting as host yourself), stand and raise your glass with both hands in the direction of the senior or oldest Vietnamese present. A flowery but short speech about Vietnam's beautiful scenery, the friendship of your hosts, and prospects for a successful business venture are appropriate. Subsequent toasts may be made and answered from your seat. The end of the meal is usually signaled by a plate of fruit or other sweet dish. After waiting a respectful period after the last course is consumed, the guest is expected to make the first move to leave. Be sure to shake hands with all Vietnamese participants and conclude by thanking your host profusely.
Gifts are expected and should be prepared for presentation during the first day's meeting, either during a break or at the close of the day. You will be expected to bring enough gifts for all of the official participants in your meetings. Such gifts can be small and relatively inexpensive. Tie tacks, pen knives, pictorial books, or similar gifts, made in the United States and preferably inscribed with your company logo, are appropriate. More expensive gifts, such as an inscribed pen and pencil set or a bottle of Western liquor, for example, might be reserved as a departure gift for your hosts. All gifts should be wrapped, but white or black paper should not be used because these colors are associated with death. Vietnamese may or may not open these gifts when they are received; leave the option to them. If the gift is especially expensive or unique, you might suggest that the recipient open it later to preclude embarrassment in front of the group.
You will also receive gifts and should defer to your host as to whether you should open it when received or not. Regardless of when it is opened or what it is, profuse thanks are always appropriate.
This brief survey of Vietnam's culture is meant to be merely an introductory primer for Americans seriously interested in doing business in Vietnam. Many excellent books are available for further study. Our intent, however, is to demonstrate the critical importance of cultural sensitivity and understanding in dealing with Vietnamese. American and Vietnamese cultures have many differing values and customs. To be effective in doing business with Vietnam, Americans must understand the differences between the two and adapt appropriately. If this is done, a long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship can result.
Esmond D. Smith, Jr. is an assistant professor of international business at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as a consultant specializing in cross-cultural communications. Cuong Pham, a native of Vietnam, is the president of Phare Marketing Network, which provides market research and other business services for companies seeking opportunities in Vietnam, and a business columnist for Thi Truong Tu Do (Free Market) magazine.
Source: Business Horizons 29.3 (1996)