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Building good business relationships

Central to many aspects of Vietnamese life, the teachings of Confucius are key to the way people relate to each other, including business dealings.

Mutual respect and attention to relationships are central to the way that people act and business is performed. Age is seen as a gift, rather than as a burden, and so older people are revered, ancestors remembered, and experience valued.

The concept of face is also important. The idea that dignity, prestige, and reputation are paramount — whether for an individual or a company — is very common in Asian nations. For Western expats used to a freer, compromising way of speech and interaction, it is important to curb behaviours and words that might cause offence or someone to lose face.

Another concept to consider is that of the importance of the group over that of the individual. Vietnam is a collectivist culture, so there are sure to be guidelines on how to talk and act so as to save the face of the community, business, or associates you are working with.

In line with the idea of collectivism and due reverence for age, experience, and ancestry, there will be hierarchical structures to which you will need to adhere. Based on status and age, everyone is considered to have their own role within the workings of the whole for social order and effective operation. For example, the oldest person in a group may be greeted or served first, as well as offered a particular position at the table and in making decisions.

Traditionally a patriarchal culture, a flourishing economy, opening markets, and a more modern way of working means that there are now more women in positions of authority in the business environment, particularly in the cities.

Based on these concepts, in the boardroom or the office there are a few things to remember:

  • It is polite to make a proper appointment and this should be done weeks in advance. If being late is completely unavoidable, telephone to make your apologies in plenty of time as punctuality is deeply valued.
  • Use an interpreter or a local intermediary to assist with language and formalities if necessary.
  • Handshakes usually take place between members of the same sex as public shows of affection between men and women, even at this formal level, can be frowned upon. If you are male, wait for a woman to extend her hand; if she does not, bow your head slightly.
  • Handshakes are usually reserved when greeting and departing and some use a two-handed shake with the left hand on top of the right wrist.
  • Business cards should be treated with respect. Read it and put it away in a case if necessary but don’t leave it on the table unattended to or put it in your pocket.
  • Allow the most senior person in the group to enter the room first and wait to be shown where your place is before you sit down.
  • Disagreement is often shown in silence in order to help save face.
  • Be clear, precise, and honest but be careful not to cause offence. Making promises you are unable to keep will cause you to lose face as well as embarrass your colleagues and anyone else around the table.
  • Group consultation is important, so be patient with big decisions, as they make take a while to make.
  • With regard to gifts, it is acceptable to give something at the end of a meeting. Small and inexpensive but thoughtful, a memento from your own country or with your company logo is ideal.
  • It is polite to accept a drink if it is offered.

In general:

  • Think about your posture and body language, as gestures such as standing with your hands on your hips, pointing, or crossing your arms on your chest are considered rude.

  • Contact with the opposite sex should also be avoided but don’t touch anyone of either sex on the shoulder or the head.
  • Pass items with both hands.

When eating:

  • The oldest person should sit first and you should wait to be shown to your place before taking your seat.
  • It is common to use chopsticks and a flat bottomed spoon, which can be rested on the bowl every few mouthfuls, when stopping to drink or talk, or when you have finished.
  • In order to eat, many people hold the bowl close to their face and it is polite to finish everything you are served.
  • While eating soup, hold the spoon in your left hand.
  • Remember to pass dishes with both hands and that meals like these are to be enjoyed as a group activity.

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