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Of all the means of communication, language – when used properly – is the most efficient. Eye contact, behavior and attitude can also express thoughts but they are bound to be easily misunderstood. Oftentimes, one thing that triggers conflicts or war among humans is misunderstanding.

Language is the link that connects people. Communication is the most important bridge that joins individuals no matter what species they belong to. It has come a long way from the time when humans made barbaric noises to express their thoughts: grunting, howling, roaring… to the time when poets put words into rhymes to attract the attention of their beloved ladies.

Vietnamese people in North America have the opportunity to live in both worlds – or to be precise – in our daily activities, we often step back and forth across the line which divides the Western and Eastern worlds. The contribution of social media and means of communication bring people closer together; things change with high speed, unfortunately our adaptability is still slow.

A Greeting Is More Valuable Than A Well Served Dish

The simple link that connects two individuals often is a greeting, which can either open the door of friendship or shut it right on the face of the person who utters it.

In Vietnamese, the familiar word “Chào” often precedes the pronoun which identifies the person who receives the greeting, such as “cậu (uncle), cô (aunt), bạn (friend), anh (brother), em (sister)…,” similar to “Hi, Hello, Hey…” in English followed by the name of the person (“Hi, John!”). To the superior, the Vietnamese would add the subject “Tôi, cháu, con, em… (meaning “I” in English) in front the word “Chào.”

English greetings (similar to many other languages) denote the time of the day such as: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, which is not to be translated verbatim into Vietnamese.

Another word which often precedes the Vietnamese greeting is “Kính”, to show respect to the other person. With the evolving ways of social interactions, this word should be used sparingly, in essence: when addressing high-profile people, such as the President or a large audience.

Vietnamese Versions of Greetings

The hospitality of Vietnamese people is displayed through the way we greet and invite people to join us for a meal. “Have you had lunch yet? Now that you’re here, please join us.” This so-called invitational greeting originated from the hospitality of people. Nowadays, people are too busy to do that and if they do, it could be just a formality – which is hard for Canadians or second generation immigrants to discern – should they join the inviter for lunch, or not?

Another form of greeting is the combination of the greeting with a praise. This is where East and West differ from each other. After hearing “Oh, such a beautiful dress” or “What a nice car!” Westerners would thank the other person whereas new-comers would usually not, since they perceive them as mere greetings. The similarity here is both East and West cultures use the praise as a tool to maintain connection between both sides.

Greetings shape themselves into the cultural ambience of each ethnic group, each community, even each “clique,” hence sometimes we see people just wink at each other instead of uttering greetings.

Interrogative greetings such as: “What are you up to?” “Where are you going?” or What’s up?” instead of “Hello!,” most of the time does not aim at discovering the answer, and this is also where confusion arises and personal boundary is violated.

A direct greeting can be used in all situations; however, indirect greetings are often used in intimate or more involved relationships. A pat on the back, a wink, or a “hey” in English is often used between close friends in lieu of a formal greeting.

The Supporting Elements of Greetings

In social interactions, besides language, there are other elements that can have tremendous impacts such as eye contact, gestures, actions, and body language. Having a natural, non-interrogating look is necessary. This is just my personal opinion, but perhaps Vietnamese people are not very tactful when exchanging looks with other people, especially in the way men look at women. In public, if you see a man staring fixatedly towards a woman, there is a 90% chance that man is Asian.

Personal gestures when greeting or conversing also speaks volumes; distracting or discomfiting gestures such as toying with the cell phone or gawking around will cause people to become reluctant. Another more serious interaction to be avoided are the overly-friendly gestures that violate personal boundaries during the conversation. Smiling is welcome during the conversation, but don’t gape inappropriately. Manners are displayed through body language such as confidence, honesty… Also, don’t cross your arms in front of your chest (proudly).

The opening line doesn’t have to be serious but it shouldn’t be done in too joking of a tone either. A girl seeking employment at a dentist office; the dentist – the same age as the girl and shares the same Vietnamese origin – upon the first welcome, jerks up his chin and asks “Hello, beautiful,” and begins the interview, “What is two plus two?” The girl is taken aback, and of course, thinks there is no way she can work with such an individual. Overly-serious or overly-jesting to the point of disrespecting the person you are talking to will cause the person to want to end the conversation.

Neutral greetings often help keep the conversation flowing, opening by asking the time works, and after that, Canadians often introduce themselves and shake hands. The proper etiquette is the other receiving guests should also introduce their names, except in situations when they don’t even want to talk to you in the first place. Asking a person to do a small favor for you is also a good way to open up the conversation, pending that the “favor” is small and does not cross the borderline of a new acquaintance.

To Vietnamese people, “A greeting is more valuable than a well served dish,” and it is mentioned often in folk verses like “Seeing one another, hats covered, no greetings. With such silence, when will a new acquaintance be made?” As with any culture, a greeting is a ritual of interactions and a measurement of personal conducts. Some people, upon disliking the other person, when he or she says hello, would rudely turn around and walk away; such action is ill-mannered and small, but is present in all cultures. I was treated like that by a Canadian boss. After a small debate, whenever we came across each other, she acted as if I was invisible. If I was talking to another colleague, she would come and start a conversation with that person as if I was transparent.

Behind The Greetings

A greeting is like a knock on the door and what comes after the greeting is the more important message, that can either open the door widely for you to walk through, open slightly for you to slip through, or shut the door completely in your face.

The message after the greeting reveals the relationship between two people. This is the challenging stage. People can ask each other all sorts of questions, and this is when they can cross the border of politeness without realizing.

The conversation can easily turn into an interrogation if not handled skillfully. With people whom you have yet become close, mundane questions can be seen as first-stage interrogation, such as:

About their daily activities: Where are you going? About their health conditions: How is your health holding up lately? About work: Are you working now? About family life: Are you married?

Add more details to the first-stage interrogation above, and politeness may turn into gossiping and prying:

About their daily activities: Where are you going alone like that? How can your husband let you carry stuff alone like that? About health conditions: Is your husband – or wife – doing well? About work: Are you working regularly? Does your husband – or wife – have regular work? Know the limits and avoid turning the conversations into second-stage interrogation – or worse – a third degree.

May I Ask You A Question

Greeting and conversing at the acquaintance stage should stick to safe topics. Avoid controversial topics that can lead to arguments because you can hurt the other person’s feelings. Safe topics are movies, music, sports, books, or food.

Once the conversational bridge is established, don’t bask in the glory of victory and ask questions that cross personal boundary, such as “How many children do you want?” Of course, you can reveal bits of personal preferences to test whether the other person would want to share more. For example: “I am the only child so I am very spoiled!”

Don’t set people up to participate in your favorite topic. If people don’t want to talk about it, show respect and don’t push it.

Humor is great. However, some people think they are so funny and witty but in fact they are quite rather bland, neither funny nor skillful in telling jokes. If one normally receives understanding laughs from one’s friends, don’t play the comedy actor with new acquaintances. Don’t try too hard to play the part when the other person is still trying to “recognize” you, assessing whether to be your friend or not. A bad joke in this scenario will destroy your chance of making a new friend.

Know when to cease the conversation at the right time. A conversation is like a date; there is a beginning and an ending.

Questions That Can Make Other People Feel Uneasy

  • What’s your full name? How old are you?
  • Where are you from? Where do you live? Are you married? How many kids do you have?
  • Are you currently working? How is your salary?
  • You purchased a home already? Are you close to paying off your mortgage?
  • Do you know how to drink? Do you eat alot instead of drinking?
  • How tall are you? What’s your weight?
  • Is your life happy?
  • Oh my god, how come you are so skinny now?
  • Gosh, how come you are so fat?

“Learning how to talk takes only two years, learning what not to talk about takes a lifetime.” In summary, the types of greeting should depend on the intensity of the relationship between the person who asks and the one replying. Greetings and small talk should change according to whether the person opposite of you is a stranger, a new acquaintance, a friend or a soul mate.

What To Say To A New Acquaintance

Choose topics that are comfortable to both sides. The current surrounding is a good topic to share. The space. The noise. The weather. A kind compliment. I like the laptop you are using. I want to get something similar. It’s gentler than compliments that can “trigger” the other person, such as: I like your hair, or I like your lipstick color… Men should exercise caution when complimenting women to avoid misunderstanding or disrespecting unknowingly.

Things that shouldn’t be shared at the newly acquainted stage: health condition or the state of family life, or political and religious topics. In your language, try to avoid making politically incorrect statements, or words that can carry degrading remarks towards other races.

In Conclusion

Lastly, when greeting Westerners, try to avoid asking personal questions, such questions that can be normal greetings to Vietnamese people, but a no-no to Western culture.

“A greeting is more valuable than a well served dish,” but it should be a dish served by a talented, skillful cook; or guests won’t be able to taste the delicious dishes upon that tray.