Sunday, February 19, 2006

No "thank you", please. We're Vietnamese

This was found via Virtual Doug: a post from Six Months in Hanoi with the title of Never The Twain. I quote:

No Thank You

The constant need to say thank you is deeply ingrained in the Western brain (maybe especially in Canadian ones). There are casual thank yous and then there are heartfelt ones. I completely understand how absurd the casual thank you can appear to the Vietnamese. When we are at a restaurant we say thank you when the waiter brings the bill. But why would we do this? This is all part of the waiter's expected role, not some kind of personal mitzvah. Besides, why would you thank someone for asking for money? Ditto with the kind but wimpy way Westerners tend to deal with hawkers pestering them on the street. I've heard tourists proudly use the literal Vietnamese translation of "No, thank you". Thanks for what? Seeing me as a source of income? There is no rational reason to thank people for merely fulfilling roles.

What are my thoughts on this?

The first is that I seriously doubt you are going to lose many friends if you say thank you too often in almost any culture, and that includes Vietnamese culture. I did hear this story from one acquaintance: one day, her maid said "You don't need to say thank you all the time!" That was after six months straight service, mind you. The only drawbacks I forsee are perceptions of weakness, insecurity or insincerity, but a lot of this would have to do with secondary behaviour. Do you sound sarcastic when you say "thank you"? Are you unable to take "No" for an answer? Do you apologize a lot for the smallest things? (The last is an old problem of mine.) Work on those problems first, I say.

The second thing is obvious, but it needs to be said. A lot of us say "thank you" because it was the way we were brought up. Otherwise, we'd get told off by our parents, or sent to our room, or had our tongues washed with soap (or lye) or something like that. It's not a "mitzvah" (?), it's a habit - and unlike smoking, not really one to lose.

Third thing third: Mark is absolutely correct in saying that the Vietnamese don't bother to say "thank you" as much as Westerners. That's the culture, and I'm fine with that. But they do say "thank you" when they sit in restaurants. They say "thank you" when the waiters bring the menu, and they also say "thank you" when they serve the food. However, the customer is not expected to say "thank you" when the bill is paid; that's what the waiter should say. But many waiters/bartenders/etc. do appreciate the customer thanking the server even if he is being paid at the same time.

Fourth: Mark thinks it's "kind but wimpy" to say "No, thank you" to hawkers and Xe Ôm drivers in Vietnamese. Me? I find it the best way to get them off my back. Just look at them in the face, and say the phrase. After three years here, it's almost automatic. Smile as well. Treat them like a human, not like a "role". Others things help, like the (Southern?) Vietnamese gesture for "No". (Both palms out and facing the listerner with all fingers extended, then rotate up and down.) Generally, the would-be-seller beams back and walks or drives on... all within seconds. It breaks you out of your assumed "role" as a "westerner", and thus automatic cash cow.

(Occasionally, you get the odd seller who persists. Do you think it's rude in Western culture? That's good, because my impression is that it is also perceived as rude in Vietnamese culture. In such cases, it is both justifiable and wise to ignore them. Learn to shut them out. You've tried your best.)

My final point, and it needs to be said: my observations are based on living in Sài Gòn. Mark's are based on living in Hà Nội. Both cities are Vietnamese, but the "cultures" are slightly different.

"Thank you" (Cảm ơn or Cám ơn) is a good phrase to learn, as is "No, thank you" (Không, cảm ơn or Không, cám ơn). If you can only learn a few Vietnamese words, learn those. They will not do much harm, and they will do you a world of good. They worked for me.