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.
In Europe, a rire jaune, a ‘yellow laugh’ in French, is a forced laugh. It is said to originate in the fact that people suffering from hepatitis are often in a bad mood and when they force themselves to laugh, the bile in their system makes them look yellow! It is also said to refer to Judas, the traitor, who in the Bible is described as dressed in yellow. Lachen als een boer die kiespijn heeft, to laugh like a farmer with a toothache, is the laugh a Dutch person makes when he is not at all amused by something but trying not to show his annoyance or shame.
In Ireland, don’t be insulted if people poke fun at you! ‘Slagging’ people is just a friendly way of making conversation – and almost a national hobby!
In Spain, don’t try too hard to be polite. People may find it annoying!