I always thought the key to acceptance of other cultures was treating everyone the same. I believed what we should strive for was a sort of invisibility of race, ethnicity, or cultural differences – as if those factors didn’t exist. Now, as I read Bridging Differences: Effective Intergroup Communication for my degree program, I see that’s where I went so wrong when I lived for about six months in Vietnam.
Working as a sub-editor at the English-language daily newspaper The Vietnam News in the communist country in 2003, I was one of a handful of Western ex-pats responsible for improving the copy translated into English by Vietnamese reporters. As reporters from the West, my husband and I found it difficult to train local reporters to get to the point, and question authority figures in their stories, not to mention the navigation of labyrinthine office politics.
I now better appreciate that the Vietnamese are part of a collectivistic culture, with high-context communication the rule, and harmony of the group at its core. Citizens are conditioned to speak indirectly, even in a journalistic capacity, which is enormously frustrating for those of in the West, who are trained to speak, and write, by getting to the meat of the matter.
With an extreme respect for authority (as opposed to Western journalists who serve as watchdogs), the Vietnamese staff were reluctant to challenge government policies, even if they tacitly knew they were unsound. Reporters were not to rock the boat or stand out as stars – a symptom of a horizontal culture.
As for office politics, seniority, age, and education were revered; work ethic and talent were not. The large power distance between staff and bosses in the Hanoi office made it impossible to have a frank discussion with those in power. Extreme diplomacy, beating around the bush, and indirect channels of communication were all part of the dance to effect any small measure of change in procedure.
We need to appreciate the differences, and work within those confines when we are guests in a country foreign to our own. While I’ve always endeavored to honour customs and beliefs anywhere else, I must have thrown that intuition out the window when I was asked to bring my expertise to the newspaper and its staff in Vietnam.
Equality among staff, the freedom to question authority, and the drive to achieve are all hard values to shake. What I learned from the good folks at the Vietnam News is, when you’ve had a lifetime of practising the opposite, those values are equally difficult to adopt.