Through the eyes of Alex Mierke
In Nov. 2014, the image of an anonymous woman in Hanoi, Vietnam driving a motorbike while holding a child and snapping a photo of an international celebrity earned news and social media headlines. The image was shot by retired footballer David Beckham during his November 2014 Asia tour, and posted to his Facebook page, receiving nearly 686,000 “likes” and over 7,000 shares to date. This impression tells only a small part of the story of current day Vietnam. In this article, we present a brief and reflective snapshot of Vietnam from the lens of intercultures consultant Axel Mierke.
Understanding Vietnamese Culture
The information and insights shared from Axel’s interview are the product of lessons learned during his 15 years as a student of Vietnamese culture through his work in business development and intercultural consulting. As senior partner of a business consultancy specializing in working with Southeast Asia, he specializes in supporting private sector European companies (especially in Austria, Germany and Switzerland) to arrive and thrive in the Vietnamese business market. In case you or your clients are planning a visit to Southeast Asia, you might be interested to know that he’s also the co-founder and manager of a regional tour agency and river cruise company in the Mekong Delta. Axel works and lives between Vietnam and Germany.
What are some of the cultural trends in Vietnam that are currently shifting?
In response to this question, Axel recounted a scene that he witnessed outside of the newly opened New Century Club, one of Hanoi’s first night clubs in 2002:
“There were girls running around with [U.S.] American flags printed on their tight tank tops. At that time, only rich people could afford that night club,” including foreigners and the adult children of wealthy Vietnamese who were in most cases “old fashioned bureaucrats” and therefore “a part of the (Communist) establishment.” He imagined what conflicts there must have been at home between these young women and their parents.
To Axel, this anecdote—and his experiences since then—indicate the cultural tension experienced in Vietnam as it increasingly opens to economic, political and social change. He contrasts those who have been in power and “raised to their positions through their merits in the [American/ Vietnamese] War” with “younger people taking the helm” who have power in numbers[i] and have studied outside of Vietnam, particularly in “the West.” He explains the conflict between older and younger as the result of changing ways of dealing with issues—which are necessarily different for an outward-facing generation that welcomes an environment of foreign investment and influence than for an inward-facing generation defending their national interests.
“There’s a trend towards more openness,” says Axel, who clarifies that one can see the change most clearly among younger people who have been educated abroad and live in urban areas like Hanoi (Vietnam’s capital) or Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). “There’s a trend towards accepting foreign cultures…People are getting more understanding. They are now more and more used to travel and realize how it is to work in an alien environment…Before, the majority was very ethnocentric because they didn’t know anything else.” In the last 20 years, Vietnam has come to know the world more than it has ever before. The establishment of a new constitution included certain economic allowances for foreign investment (1992); Vietnam joined ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) (1995) and the WTO (World Trade Organization) (2007)[ii] and is nowadays a more open economy; and Internet access both from and to the country has allowed for international exposure.
Axel says that the career choices of women are another indicator of cultural change in Confucian Vietnam. While the expectation remains that women’s “main obligation would be to have a family,” more women are choosing to build a career, as well as—and sometimes instead of—building a family. Statistics help tell the story: Between 2010-2014, 73% of women were counted among the labor force[iii]. If women seeking marriage find a husband who accepts their professional life, says Axel, they have to be “grateful to her husband for his fairness.” These gender roles may be traditional, but they’re not at all outdated in a country where, “Đàn ông xây nhà,đàn bà xây tổ ấm” [“Men make a house; women make a home”]. Gender role expectations remain true, as well, despite the fact that “its nothing very unusual to have female leadership positions,” including CEOs and some Ministers of government[iv], the later being a legacy of the wartime era when women stepped in to keep the country functional while men fought the War. Still, on a day-to-day basis—and especially among those populations whose education has not been influenced by international exposure—there’s still much respect to gain for women in the workplace.
How would you characterize Vietnam relative to some its cultural and/or geographic neighbors?
“Let’s start with the big brother in the North,” says Axel, referring to China. “I would characterize Vietnam more as an East Asian country and not as a South Asian country in terms of the culture.”
Axel draws a comparison between the Confucian heritage and modern values of both countries and advises caution in saying so to Vietnamese. Work ethic and the business need for networking and relationship building are also simularities.
In comparison to Vietnam’s geographic neighbors to the West, Axel says that there are more commonalities among Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. For instance, “In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia you are bowing and smiling all the time. You don’t do that that much in China and Vietnam.”
What is a common misconception about working with Vietnam?
According to Axel, “If you’re trying to take your global management system and put that to Vietnam, I think you’re pretty doomed! You either need to adapt it to local circumstances and/or find people that can translate that…You need that cultural interpreter that understands both worlds.”
The expectation that an imported management style will work comes with a range of incorrect assumptions about working in Vietnam:
- Seniority doesn’t necessarily mean superiority
“Always listen to the elder,” says Axel. “In a company that’s managed in a traditional way, everyone would nod their head and not dare contradict or to question” an elder leader—or any leader—even when one disagrees. More generally, “they don’t have a discussion culture,” says Axel. Whether it be respecting an elder or respecting a leader, Power Distance is a distinct aspect of culture in Vietnam.
- Delegation is an efficient way to manage tasks
“You don’t delegate as a manager [in Vietnam]. You instruct people what they should be doing step by step. That means a lot of micromanagement if you’re working there as a foreigner. [Whether] you like it or not, it’s going to be very tough to find ways around it.”
- Ask questions to test ideas
From experience, Axel emphasizes that it’s “very hard to teach Vietnamese colleagues that they should question you…[and] bring you suggestions. That’s not a management system that they’re used to. It starts in school: You have the big teachers. Very high status. Teacher stays in the front. All the kids are sitting down and writing down word by word what he’s saying. They’re taught to learn by heart and not to discuss. That’s something that is of course lived [out] in a company. That’s a normal way of management in a Vietnamese company.”
- Focus on the individual
In order to avoid losing face, Axel recommends investing in relationships. Over time, “once you have built up a relationship with your partner, you can actually communicate quite directly…[and] you do get feedback.” In the meantime, Axel advises his clients to “find people on their side” by “hiring an assistant that is also a cultural interpreter” and can coach towards increased success. When hiring for this role, a candidate’s local management experience is crucial; global exposure and an understanding of international management practices do not win over the ability to see and understand the local experience. Worst case scenario: You lose face or cause someone else to lose face. “Losing face in Vietnam is about the worst thing that could happen,” says Axel. “If that happens you might as well pack your bags!”
For questions about working with Vietnam or comments on this article, email intercultures.
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The above article was included in the Nov. 2014 intercultures e-newsletter.
Photo credit title picture: Axel Mierke.
Photo credit „woman on bike“: Facebook page of David Beckham.
Photo credit „Map of Southeast Asia“: Google Maps.