In Vietnam, people will smile regardless of how they are feeling. This is to do with the concept of ‘face’, a very important matter when travelling and communicating in East Asia.
‘Face’ can be roughly defined as a person’s reputation, dignity and prestige. It is important to keep or save face, and to avoid losing or making someone else lose face. You can also give face to someone. It is valuable to know how you might cause someone to lose face, as in most cases people will not openly show you that you have offended them, but the offence, the ‘loss of face’, will not be forgotten.
Face can be given, saved or lost by companies as well as individuals. One important way in which foreigners can avoid making people lose face is by not giving criticism publicly. If you have a complaint or have a poor opinion of someone’s performance or service, avoid conveying this in front of other people – find a way to do it in private.
Because saving face is so important, a smile in Asia also does not necessarily mean the same as a smile elsewhere. Vietnamese people will continue to smile, in fact they will smile all the more, if they are embarrassed or feel uncomfortable about something. This has led in the past to real conflict and increasing anger on the part of Westerners. Do not make this mistake! Don’t be irritated if, for example, a hotel manager smiles broadly at you when a reservation has got lost or if something goes wrong in a public place. You are not being laughed at, nor is the matter not being taken seriously. The people you are dealing with are simply trying to ‘save face’ – both their own and yours. Smile back!
In Vietnam it is also common for people to smile if they don’t understand you. Do not insist; smile, apologise for being unclear, and try to explain in a different way.