Vietnam: 31 Ways to Improve Your Legal Success in Vietnam: Part 2

Last Updated: 11 August 2010

By Deborah M. House

Part 2 - continued

Ten Tips to Help Bridge the Cultural Divide

That said. because Vietnam is changing so rapidly, some of the traditional ways of thinking are changing as well. As noted below, those changes may be more apparent in some groups than others. Here are 10 tips for in-house counsel charged with spanning this cultural divide. 10

1. Recognize and Respect the Practice of Maintaining Face

An individual's public image or "face" is extremely important. It is a serious mistake to take any action that might be interpreted as criticism of your Vietnamese counterparts or that causes them embarrassment in front of their colleagues. Similarly, taking an action that causes you to lose face, like losing your temper or responding emotionally in a meeting, is also unacceptable. If there are difficult issues to be addressed, then tact. sensitivity, and discretion should be the watchwords. Informal spur of the moment remarks, jesting banter, and the type of overt disparagement that is common to Western negotiations, may permanently terminate them in Vietnam.

2. Anticipate Decisions by Consensus

Along with opposing counsel, [ remember once being ordered by a frustrated Federal judge to "get two officers who can bind your companies down to the courthouse, because tomorrow we arc going to settle this case" In some ways that order was illustrative of a widely held Western belief that if you get the right level of authority in the same room for a prescribed time period any and all final decisions can be made.

Such is not the case in Vietnam. Even minority opinions or opinions of entities only tangentially related to a matter may be given substantial weight and respect. As a result. activities may not proceed and approvals may not be forthcoming in the absence of group accord. The overall goal for the Vietnamese will be to reach a consensus of all involved parties. If this is not achieved. a decision may be significantly or indefinitely delayed even if it appears that there is one decision-maker who could move the matter forward.

That said, younger (under 30) business persons or those working in the private sector may be more likely to expedite a decision than government officials or people working for state-owned enterprises.

3. It's Not How You Play the Game but Whether You Win or Lose

"This is a win-win for both of us," or words to a similar effect, are standard fare in American negotiations and even viewed as a common goal. Not so in the Vietnam context. Negotiations and undertakings are viewed as having a winner and a JoseI'; and no one wants to be the loser. Accordingly, even when it seems that the deal is cut and both sides should proceed "as is," the Vietnamese may still be seeking to improve their position, often at the cost of significant delays for both parties. They may also be focusing on further building the relationship (see discussion below). While this can be very frustrating, an appropriate approach is not anger or criticism of the other side, both of which can undermine face. Rather, planning for anticipating delays and further negotiations is the more reasonable approach and better designed to relieve stress and move the matter forward.

4. Be Prepared for the Many Differences

There are a wide variety of differences in personal approach and mannerisms of which counsel in Vietnam need to be aware. For example. whereas direct eye contact for Americans is perceived as respectful and demonstrating that close attention is being paid, in Vietnam it is considered to be discourteous. In fact respect is demonstrated by averting one's eyes when a senior individual is speaking. Personal space for the Vietnamese is greater than it is for most Americans and in conversations they may choose to stand further away then the American norm of 18 inches. The friendly pat on the back or hand to the shoulders should be avoided. Significant respect and deference is awarded to persons of age, often without regard to their professionaI seniority.

5. It's All About the Context

While the Vietnamese are known for their entrepreneurial attitude and their strong desire to increase foreign investment in their country, do not expect business meetings to aggressively zero in on the business at hand. Rather, given their high-context culture. the Vietnamese first will want to know you better. A strong understanding of your background, character, personality. interests, and even your family will assist them in interpreting your verbal and nonverbal communications, which will in turn facilitate future dialogue. [t is not unusual for Vietnamese business executives to invite business associates to their home for refreshments or to visit them during a holiday, such as Tet (New Year).

Accordingly, it is important to start relationship-building even before you sit down to discuss business. If you invest some time to get to know your Vietnamese counterparts and gain their trust first, you will have a smoother and faster negotiation. Vietnamese like to think below the surface and not take things on face value. They may think that a good deal is too good to be true. If you have their trust and they understand your intentions, they will be Jess suspicious. Rushing too fast into a decision is not a desirable trait for the Vietnamese. Faced with Western negotiators who want to rush may cause the Vietnamese to be more suspicious and cause them to delay their decision.

For Westerners who are strongly dependent on communicating primarily through words rather than relationship building and who often draw a bright line between the professional and the personal, this approach may seem excruciatingly nonproductive and even off-putting. However accepting and engaging in it is more likely to produce a fruitful effort in the long run.

6. It May Be a Long Road to a Real "Yes"

You should be prepared for the fact that in Vietnam, "Yes" does not necessarily mean "Yes." Instead it can simply mean that the person is listening to you, but not that they are agreeing with you. Moreover, the Vietnamese are not necessarily on a rapid road to "getting to yes." While this is changing, the Asian concept of time still reflects a great deal more patience than other cultures and the assertion of urgency that challenges this notion may be viewed with distrust. As one commentator evaluated the contrast: "Americans measure time by the clock; Vietnamese by the monsoon." The Confucian virtue of patience may be one virtue that counsel in Vietnam are well advised to seek.

7. "Maybe" and Even "Yes" May Mean "No"

The Vietnamese may be very reluctant to provide a negative answer or refuse a request. Thus, they may equivocate, agree to something they do not intend to do at all. or avoid giving an answer all together. To Western attorneys who have spent a long time perfecting their firm "No" to clients hell-bent on the wrong path, this approach may appear to be disingenuous at best and dishonest at worse. Instead, it should be seen as what it really is-an effort to reach the pararnoul1t goal of harmony and accord among the participants. An alternative approach to frustration is to formulate requests in a way that does not solicit a "No" answer, such as "When can we meet again?" rather than "Can we meet again next week?" Moreover, if a hesitant or equivocal answer is forthcoming to a question, it should trigger an examination of the original inquiry to determine whether it called for a "no" answer, and a rapid revision if it did.

8. The Formal Approach Is Alive and Well in Vietnam

In an. era characterized by business casual attire. correspondence conducted electronically that dispenses with salutations and accurate spelling, and remote offices that look suspiciously like the beach, it is hard to believe that significant formalities may still exist in the business world. But they do in Vietnam. Initiation of contacts with a Vietnamese entity is best undertaken by a third party who can attest to your company's character and integrity. Correspondence is conducted in writing and should be formal in its tone and approach. Face-to-face meetings are preferred over telephone conversations.

For Westerners, especially Americans who often tend to take an egalitarian approach to life, it is important to recognize that social hierarchy and business rankings in Vietnam must be considered. Vietnamese like to have a fairly strict social order. Consider the fact that in the Vietnamese language almost every personal pronoun (e.g., I, you, he, she) changes based on the age of the speaker and the status of the listener. It would be considered rude for you to speak to a senior official and his/her subordinates in the same tone and manner. It would also be considered rude if you talk more with the subordinates and ignore the senior official. Senior principles often make an "entrance" into the meeting room after others of lesser status have gathered and seating is by rank. Use of given names in business conversation is highly unusual and titles are more frequently used.

Conversations are more formal with many of the staples of Western discussion banned, including sex, politics, and religion. Topics relating to Vietnam to be avoided include communism, the Vietnam War (or the "American War" as it is referred to in Vietnam), and any inference of Vietnamese inferiority. Jokes and other humor-which often doesn't translate well across cultures or across languages-are also on the unacceptable list. While many Vietnamese speak English, transactions are often conducted in Vietnamese through an interpreter.

The degree of formality observed may differ depending on the group with which you are dealing. Formalities may be less observed when the Vietnamese involved are younger or in the private sector. as opposed to Vietnamese working in the government or with government sponsored enterprises.

9. You Don't Know What You Don't Know

There are many aspects of Vietnam language, culture, and society that are simply not going to be available in any book or otherwise reasonably discernible to Westerners. They will require very knowledgeable people, most often natives, to identify, interpret, and address. Trade associations can be very helpful in this regard as well as the embassies of the countries of companies seeking to invest. Outside counsel with international experience and specifically experience in Vietnam can also pave the way as can in-house Vietnamese speaking counsel. Any investors who do not take the time to seek, identify, and consult with such resources stand a significant chance of acting to their detriment.

To read the rest of this article, please see Part 3

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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