Saving face in Vietnam (ASIA)

In this episode: How can you “save face” and still address business issues in a Vietnamese (or Asian) business culture?  Granger & Cameron follow up on Monday Morning Coffee’s episode ‘Meeting Protocol’ with a discussion on ‘Saving Face’ through their personal experiences, and a few more “Do’s and Don’ts” to remember.

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Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability.

Listen to the full episode at link below.

Granger: Happy Friday, everybody from the Lotus talks. This is Granger Whitelaw here with Cameron Lynch on this beautiful Friday in Saigon. Cam, how was your week?

Cam: It was awesome. You know, I did a lot of things went to work.

Granger: You kind of got a new gig going on with your little application company.

Cam: Yes, it’s been a hectic week.

Granger: That’s exciting, more things to learn.

Cam:  The first week that I haven’t drank in a long time.

Granger: That’s a good thing.

Cam: That’s great. I think it’s awesome.

Granger: Oh, we’ll get right to it. So we were speaking on meeting etiquette and protocol on Monday and um, and we transitioned to talk about face today, saving face. So this is a big deal in Asia and the Asian culture face. And I always think about this like, wow, you know, I am pretty, um, forward and uh, and I say exactly what I’m thinking, right. So definitely something that I need to always be conscious of is not doing it in a way that makes someone feel put off.

Cam: Yeah.

Granger: Okay. So this is all about face. So let’s just talk about what is face, um, face is defined as individuals social standing, right. Really, uh, it’s a key part of the Vietnamese business culture in all culture in Southeast Asia really. And you really at all costs want to avoid someone from losing face. It can have a massive impact on your relationship with them.

Cam: Yeah.

Granger: Um, it can affect your business. Relationships are very important in the Vietnamese business culture and understanding how to save face. Will certainly help you build a strong reputation in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. Um, this is really why we want to talk about it today with you out there who maybe you haven’t thought about this, maybe you’re familiar with it a tertiary level, but you haven’t   really thought about, gee, what tips can you give me about saving face,  certainly being very complimentary.

Cam: Yeah. Yeah. Indirect being very indirect when it comes to your comments on people’s work performance being complimentary is much better than not being nice. You know, that’s effectively that. I mean being in direct, if you have comments or complaints, like one of the best things that I’ve learned is, especially in this industry since it’s advertising, you say, okay, I like your idea, let’s do a split test and see whose idea is actually correct.

Granger: Right, right, right.

Cam: Because if you, if you codify everything and like Oh it’s data sciences Oh it’s, we’re just comparing and contrasting rather than saying, no, I hate your idea, shoot it down.

Granger:  Right. Right.

Cam: You actually put in the effort in that form and then people are much more receptive to it.

Granger: But that is, that’s great. You’re acknowledging someone, right. Their idea and you’re clearly listening and you’re doing more unless you’re taking action on their idea. Yeah. And you may know it’s not going to work, but, but it really does make them feel and that’s important in any relationship.

Cam:  And it’s also, you know, there’s always means to test, you know, testing is the key to life experimentation, blah, blah, blah. Right. So it definitely helps.

Granger: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Cam: And I think it really, when it comes to face, it also comes down to social signaling like who I am and who I’m perceived to be. Cause when you were talking to Ha Anh, you we’re talking perception is reality.

Granger: Oh for the profile for Ha Anh Vu. Yeah.

Cam: For the profile. Yeah. I feel like it comes back to face.   The perception of you is what people see when they see your face. You know and a lot of people, especially in the corporate world will have certain masks that they wear.

Granger: Well perception is what people think of you, right.

Cam: Yeah.

Granger: Character is who you really are.

Cam: And the whole thing is face is about your relationship with others in your group. And it’s not how you perceive yourself necessarily

Granger: Oh face right.

Cam: It’s about how others can perceive you. So if you give someone this negative treatment. So if I say Granger, I don’t like your glasses. That’s not necessarily a very harsh statement, but it does cue you in such a way that it’s negative.

Granger: Well, here’s the funny thing though, but you know I’m pretty facetious, right I, I joke around a lot with people

Cam: It’s fun.

Granger:  And you do too, right. We do this a lot. We’re very similar in that nature and we’re American and so we have a way we do it. You know, the English have a very tongue and cheek dry way. They do it. And as you get older and more experienced about how to, you know, kind of, you know, bully around with your buddies and have fun, it’s fun. But the Vietnamese don’t understand that.

Cam: Sarcasm does not translate very easily.

Granger: Right.

Cam: Yeah. So you really have to be direct more direct in some cases, but you know, you should never bring something out. Like, you know, I don’t even know, like example of sarcasm.

Granger: But here’s a good example man. Like people were always calling me fat. Now, not fat, like Granger, you’re fat. But you know, there’ll be like, Oh, you got a big tummy of your, Hey you, you know the Vietnamese people, right. They tease me about it, right Yeah. And they know it’s me. I think for the most part, I don’t care. Right. So I’m like, I can lose 20 pounds. I’m not really fat if you’re listening, but I’m probably 20 pounds overweight, right. Where I should be. But you know, if they do it too in their own way, and that’s okay if you know somebody.

Cam: Yeah. I mean, so it goes back to that stuff like, Oh, you’re Không mạnh mẽ, you’re not strong or you’re Mập quá, you know, you’re very fat. But you know that stuff. And the stuff that is funny because I mean, I think strength and especially   being heavy here is actually seen in some cases as being good.

Granger: It is.

Cam: You eat a lot. That’s good.

Granger: yeah, yeah, yeah. I guess wealth or something that you can associate with.

Cam: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So it’s social signaling too.

Granger: Social signaling.

Cam: Yeah. I mean, Hey, yeah, I eat a lot of food, you know, that must mean I’m a good businessman.

Granger: So then it also, on face, you know, you again want to dress for the occasion, right. So for business meetings, you want to, if you dress casually, people will think, Oh well, you know, he’s not really interested. If you dressed formally like I do, normally with a   tie, they think, Oh, this is a somebody that’s valued by the person visiting me, right. Because they’ve come dressed well. So again, how you dress can make a big difference. Um, you know, it’s interesting, someone told me that if someone offers you a gift here, you should always say no first, politely. And then when they ask me again, same as a meal, you should say no. Right Like, it’s a part of the culture and the kind of the rhythm of going to protocol again, but protocol meaning protocol goes into saving face, which is why we’re talking about this. So that was interesting.  I didn’t really understand that. But now I do. And respecting seniority is important to build face for those who are older than you or hold a higher rank. Right so Vietnamese culture holds elders and their bosses in the highest respect.

Cam: It’s some sort of like filial piety or like a worship to the ancestors. Right. You know, I hate to say this, but it sounds almost Confucian in some senses, you know, cause it’s all about the hierarchy. It’s all about

Granger: Sure.

Cam: Ancestor worship, you know, treatment, proper treatment and you know, there is like all throughout Asia with similar meeting practices, there is a history of Confucianism too.

Granger: Sure.

Cam: So, you know, I don’t want to make grand claims as that because you can’t really reduce it down to something as that. But I think there could be a history when it comes to the cultural aspect.

Granger: Well there is definitely an impact, right yeah. All these things that kind of affect each other. Right. Accepting invitations, if you are invited to an event before or after a meeting, you’re always to accept it. And this is something that’s really hard for me, right. Cause I don’t drink. Right. And they always want to go out drinking, but I don’t drink alcohol. Right. And I can’t, I physically can’t do it, but I will go out and join people while they’re drinking. But I don’t always feel like at eight o’clock or nine thirty they’re having dinner, going out afterwards and drinking and doing the singing, and the karaoke. And it’s not disrespectful, but I can’t do it. And I ended up explaining myself a lot and I do explain myself, but, I shouldn’t have to, but I do because it’s a cultural thing.

Cam: I mean it is really part of face too. That whole aspect of doing business outside business hours is very prominent here. You know, a lot of it is based on the relationships that you build on.

Granger: 100 percent.

Cam: And you know what, there is a major drinking culture here as such, with Japan for example, as well too. They will go out after work and that’s when kind of this whole idea of face kind of can deteriorate. It’s this open ground where everyone can treat each other like equals at a point. So I mean, it’s necessary when you have such a kind of rigid society and it allows you to break down those barriers and address those concerns that you really can’t normally.

Granger: But it’s the same anywhere in the States when we go out, or where we grew up we go out drinking and going to a football match or a soccer game or whatever it is, right. It’s about building that relationship. But that is one you definitely want to be careful of how you decline an invitation if you’re given it. So in this culture it’s, it’s very, very true. And touching, your Vietnamese business partners, business negotiations are treated with a great deal of respect here and honor. So casual behavior like that, right joking around and popping somebody who you don’t know necessarily well or something is frowned upon. So definitely be careful about no physical contact and never point out a mistake or call someone a liar. Shaming anyone of Vietnamese business in front of others would cause them to lose face. And certainly it probably lose your relationship with them. You have to be very careful about that. Now, I’ve been in some board meetings with some of Vietnamese companies though where, boy, Oh boy. I mean those are closed door, right that’s a closed door meeting, but you know, they just really have talked down to people and I don’t like that. I’ve seen expats do it. Who have been here for a long time. The way they speak to their employees and, and you’re probably familiar with some of the conversations I’m talking about. I do not like it. You do not talk down to somebody. It’s one thing to try to get the constructive criticism in a way, but even doing that in public, in front of others, you have to be very careful about.

Cam: You know, it’s kind of interesting, you know, I’ve seen meetings that degraded into shouting matches and I was just there and you know, I mean as soon as, well it’s kind of funny. As soon as the conversation went to a Vietnamese, I was like, okay, this is going somewhere I’ve never been before. I think I’m going to leave. Thank you very much.

Granger: What is up with that? The shouting thing

Cam: I don’t know. I think it, well you tensions get high as of course, you know, in any company. So I think it just comes to that point where you know,

Granger: It’s somewhat cultural too, because I would never allow that. Right.

Cam: Yeah of course.

Granger: And I’ve been in them and I’ve looked at my people I’m with, I’m like, we’re never doing business with this guy.

Cam: I feel like there’s also this perception, I mean back in the States, you know, wall street guys just treating the interns. I actually watching American psycho a couple of nights ago and you know, you’ve seen that movie right?

Granger: That’s a bad influence though. It’s a movie.

Cam: It’s a movie I know, but it’s supposed to like represent kind of like this crazy form of wall street guy who’s even more heinous or whatever is like a serial killer. Right. But the way he treated his employees, I mean obviously that.

Granger: I mean, honestly being on Wall Street for 20 years. I saw that a lot right on the floor or the pit. I mean, it’s different. That’s a different environment. And you signed up for it. You know what I mean You signed up for it. You know what you’re doing. You’re a trader, you’re on the floor. You’re know it’s part of the game.

Cam: I get that. Right.

Granger: Part of is the way to get your energy up too, right. And get your guys’ energy up. Right Yeah. That’s different than what we’re talking about, you know. Anyway, be very careful about this, and then there’s a soft and hard face, right You talk about the,

Cam: It’s all about power relationships too. Cause I mean, I feel like in the States a lot of the conversations might be more hard focused. So you give a demand, you give a task and the people have to do it or.

Granger: Sure. Take directions.

Cam: You know or face repercussions. Yeah. So, but here, I think if you use soft power, it’s just, just like, uh, suggestions, you know, a collaborative efforts to increase performance. You know, everyone has a KPI, KPIs are huge here.

Granger: KPIs are big here. Yeah.

Cam: Very big. Yeah. So, but the way to better achieve them is maybe reducing the strenuous efforts of it and just offering bonuses or you know, it’s also these other ways of reinforcement. Creating means by which people feel more confident, more happy, you know, more part of the team and less delegated.

Granger: Yeah like doing OKRs. OKRs are big and Google’s famous for them. But anyway, OKRs are another big thing here. Right. And KPIs but having group ones as well, not just individual ones. Um, and I think that creates an environment where people can work together more collaborative. Right. And we try to do that all the time. Yeah. So with our guys that we work with here and, and in our other businesses. So definitely, um, try to build an environment where people can work together in a collaborative, positive environment where it’s not about putting people down, but certainly building them up.

Cam: And there’s also, this new way of conducting meetings and like, you know, it’s basically like you pass the torch, you know, everyone has a chance to speak up and conversate about them. So I feel like the normal ways like, well the cultural ways of conducting meetings here might be shifting slightly.

Granger: Oh yeah I think they are.

Cam: But of course, you know, either those Vietnamese companies that are strictly Vietnamese and then, you know, expat oriented companies. Multinational corporations and they all have different corporate structures too, you know, I mean, meetings in a Japanese company in Vietnam will be highly different the way an American company would structure in Vietnam.

Granger: Oh yeah absolutely.

Cam: So that’s the amazing part of trying to navigate that as well. You know, there’s so many complexities and you know, it, you’re dealing with culture, but you’re dealing with culture and business and it’s beautiful.

Granger: Well, a lot of this comes down to really, you know, being polite, being courteous, being respectful, right. Kind of like all the things you learn in kindergarten, right say thank you as I always say, and try to build relationships in a positive way and be respectful to people, and I think you’ll get a long way in life. Yeah.

Cam: It’s kind of like noticing the mistakes but praising the successes.

Granger: Absolutely. Yeah. Good point. Good way to put that Cam.

Cam: Hey, I’m working on it. Yeah.

Granger: Alright well it is Friday. I am ready to go out and have some fun tonight. It’s the 244th Marine Ball here in Saigon. I’m so excited about that.

Cam: Woah. Sounds exciting.

Granger: So I’m going to the Marine ball tonight and we’re gonna celebrate, the Marines and, and AMCHAM is a big obviously,

Cam: Is that a hoo rah I dunno.

Granger: Hoo rah! Yeah, yeah. No, it’s great. And the Marines and all of our soldiers everywhere in the world should be commended and, celebrated. So we’re going to do that tonight. I don’t know what you’re up to.

Cam: Uh, I’m probably going to a live music bar.

Granger: Acoustic bar. Okay. Cam will be at the acoustic bar for anybody wants to see him tonight and we will both be here Monday to talk about, I don’t know what we’re talking about Monday. I guess you have to wait and see. Have a great weekend.

Cam: Bye bye.