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When hearing a foreigner (mostly travelers) speak our language, we often feel elated and ignore all the linguistic mistakes the person makes. Decades ago, while trying to make friends with a lovely refugee girl, an officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in a refugee camp in Malaysia decided to learn some basic Vietnamese phrases. The officer asked a young man how to say “Young lady” (Cô gái) in Vietnamese. Instead of teaching him the word for “Cô gái”, the impish youth taught him “Con khỉ,” which means Monkey in Vietnamese. Since then, every time seeing the girl, the young amicable officer said, “Con khỉ!” in a slurred pronunciation filled with much enthusiasm. Those who were nearby always burst out laughing after a moment of surprise. The girl laughed timidly with embarrassment. I left the camp soon after that, and lost track of the relationship between the young UNHCR officer and the “Monkey,” however I believe though uncomfortable at the beginning, the girl might get used to being called “Con Khỉ” every time the young officer visited her slum and loudly announced: “Where is my Con Khỉ?” Who knows, that might very well be the beginning of a love story.

Just a greeting

Greetings are simple but never trivial. In this issue, I would like to share with you my personal view relating to our every day greetings. A word can have two different meanings depending on the person delivering it as well aas the person receiving it, and the milieu of the conversation. Of course we will not discuss in depth the content of the language, but focus only on words used in daily greetings. Greetings though brief, but if used inappropriately, could mislead, confound and embarrass people.

Vietnamese is a complicated language. Though there are many words you can use to address the other person, in order to be appropriate, each word is often used for only one person: Ông, bác, chú, cậu, anh (for males), bà, dì, mợ, thím, chị, cô (for females), anh, bạn, bồ, cậu (for your equals), chị, cô, em (for a person younger than you); and ái khanh, tiểu muội, em, cưng, bé… for your lover (depending on whether you are the king, the poet or an ordinary man); and the final option is addressing the person by name without title.

Of those addressing words, “em” is perhaps the word being used the most inappropriately, and in this article, I will limit myself only to this word (in Vietnamese) and the first name (in English).

Honey, can I ask you something?

Many people will say that “em” is equivalent to “you” in English. I beg to differ. “Em” does not simply mean “you” but also contains in itself the connotation of closeness, intimacy, similar to the word “mình” our ancestors used decades ago to address their spouse. As a result “em” has the same meaning as “honey, sweetheart, baby…” in English.

That’s why I often develop the anaphylactic shock when I hear a man addressing a young woman (who is not related to him at all) as “em” and refers to himself unctuously as “anh.” I see that as being impolite, inappropriate and even abusive, especially if the lady is a married woman. Many pretty mothers, whose youthful appearance has been well maintained, were asked by men much younger than them, “Are you married, sweetie (em)?”

In the old days

In the old days when addressing a woman, we used the title “bà” or “chị” (both mean Mrs.) in front of the name of her husband to show respect. Though we no longer live in “old days”, women still deserve the respect. Impetuous and insolent language is no different than impetuous and insolent attitude. Greeting a woman by embracing her can be interpreted as being polite, being “westernized,” but can also be considered as being rude, taking advantage of the woman. The same effect can be created with language. It is the same as addressing a Canadian woman with “honey, sweetie…” Don’t honey me! Have you ever heard that? Vietnamese women rarely object verbally because they don’t want to be labeled as haughty, arrogant, snobbish, but that doesn’t mean they like it.

I witness many Vietnamese male bosses (in Vietnam as well as in Canada) honey-this, honey-that with their female workers and acted as if that’s normal. They often rationalize that such “friendly” language makes people feel like members of the same family. I (it’s me again) don’t think that is acceptable. Language transfers thoughts but also carries with it sentimental connotations. Failure in using proper language is a case of verbal abuse, whether intentionally or not. Saying honey-this, honey-that to a woman who is not your spouse or lover is no different than forcing her into your embrace or your kiss.

If we examine closer, we could see that such usage of language is found more often in people who come from Central and South Vietnam, as compared to people from the North. From this, people may conclude that it’s because the North pays closer attention to formality. If that is the case, then such good practice should be fostered.

When can you address others by first name?

One of the questions that bother newcomers the most is: When to address a person by his or her first name. I think that if the person is addressing you by your first name, you can address that person by his or hers. Of course there are exceptions like in the military, in government offices, and other particularly formal places such as the court. Many people think the value of an individual is based on his own merit rather than that of his or her family or class, no matter what kind of wealth or prestige the family has. However, family name is also important because it is your family brand and your family name carries with it your legacy and prestige. There are times when it matters not just whether you someone, but whether you are a Kennedy or a descent of the royal Nguyen Dynasty…

In Vietnamese, when the role of a person is determined, it will be simple to address him or her. The title “ông, anh, chú, cậu” (Mr.) or “bà, chị, cô” (Mrs. or Miss) followed by the person’s first name. Vietnamese people rarely address others by the last name the way the Chinese do (President Thiệu, not President Nguyễn). Though there is an exception: people in the North don’t call “Uncle Minh” (first name)” but “Uncle Hồ” (last name).

When should you address a person by his or her first name? Simple. When that person gives you permission (Just call me Jack), or when that person addresses you by the first name. I see many newcomers, wanting to be friendly, addressing others (even older people) by their first names at the very first encounter. It doesn’t sound right and such display of disrespect is not a valuable trait of Vietnamese culture.

Just call me Jack

When you politely asked Vietnamese women, “Can I call you em?” (similar to “Can I call you honey?”), many of them would stare at you and then timidly said, “It’s fine.” The assumption that they would not object to your terms of endearment doesn’t allow you to automatically use those terms to address them.

When talking to a Vietnamese woman, the best way is to put pronouns “chị, bà (Mrs.), cô (Miss) in front of the person’s first name. If a Vietnamese married woman is your friend, there is still a need for a space between you and her in conversations. You can merrily address her as “bà” (madam), cô (Miss), and refer to yourself as “tôi” (I, me), but “anh” and “em” are exclusive to her husband or her lover. The infraction of this subtle etiquette is a sign of improper nostalgia to the past, when the emperor of a kingdom built a majestic palace with a harem full of beautiful women and all of them were “Ái khanh của Trẫm” (my Beloved Subjects).

Author Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn, the popular Vietnamese literary figure, in the role of an MC, either on stage or behind the scene and while talking to female singers and performers, never “honey-this, honey-that,” even at the beginning of his show biz career,  when he was still relatively young and fully qualified to do it with young, pretty female celebrities. I consider that a good example of the proper way to address members of the opposite sex.

Don’t honey me!

I hope you agree with me that the term “em” – in Vietnamese – as in “anh với em” is not the same as “me” in “you and me” in English, but similar to babe, sweetie, honey… and not everybody should be allowed to use it.

Similarly, in English, addressing a person by first name without the approval of that person – to me – is simply impolite.

A word, in communication, though just slips through your lips, carries meaning which stays with the listener much longer than we think. I believe when Canadians are addressed by their first name, by a person with whom they are not on the first name basis yet, or a lady being addressed by a man (known to her or not) by “em” in Vietnamese or “honey” in English, would feel uncomfortable, just like the way the girl in the refugee camp did, when addressed by that UNHCR officer as “Con Khỉ.” That poor officer could be forgiven because he learned Vietnamese from an unreliable source. Unfortunately no exoneration should be granted to those who torture the language that they learned since they were born.