Going Blank Again

25 October, 2007

Last week I attended a company seminar for IT journalists here in Ho Chi Minh City. One of our guest speakers was a British retailer who has been in Vietnam for a couple of years, but who hadn’t actually presented to a Vietnamese audience before. 

After his talk, he said to me “I don’t think they liked it – I got no reaction from them at all.” On the contrary – our feedback forms indicated that his talk was very well-received. His inexperience at presenting to a local audience meant he mistook their natural lack of expressiveness for boredom or disinterest. 

Don’t expect a moshpit

Presenting or teaching (or indeed any other kind of performance) in Asia can be a real challenge, as the people are generally a lot less expressive than Westerners. Look at footage of a music performance in Vietnam or China, and see how the audience sit in their seats and politely applaud – then look at a Western rock crowd and see the difference! I showed my wife (who is Vietnamese) Rage Against the Machine’s thrilling live DVD The Battle of Mexico City, where the real stars are not the band but their fans, a huge seething, moshing, leaping mass of hysteria – and she found it equally hilarious and terrifying; she’d never seen anything like it. 

To the speaker, delivering your presentation or lecture to a room of expressionless, unresponsive faces can be disheartening – teachers and speakers like to see nodding heads, smiles, laughs or other signs that their message is getting through and being appreciated, and when this doesn’t happen, some of them visibly wilt, whilst others over-compensate and begin exaggerating their gestures and vocal inflections in a desperate attempt to provoke a reaction. I know, I’ve done it myself! 

Local knowledge

A little bit of local knowledge is needed when delivering a presentation or talk of any kind. Just because those five or six Vietnamese in the audience are sitting stony-faced doesn’t mean they’re not interested, just as the dozen Italians who nod and smile at everything you say aren’t necessarily going to come up to you and buy your product when you’ve finished. And the couple of Egyptians who walked in half an hour late and chatted to each other through your entire presentation may well have found it fascinating and could turn out to be your best customers. 

So when presenting across cultures, do a little bit of research first and find out how different cultures take in information and react to being presented to. This will ensure you don’t misread the signs and make the wrong assumptions about the success (or lack thereof) of your talk.

When conducting training sessions on subjects such as presentation skills or business communication here in Vietnam, one of the most difficult concepts for students to grasp is that of tone of voice. Vietnamese, like Chinese, is a tonal language, and tonal languages allow the speaker little flexibility when it comes to varying their tone or pitch, thus limiting their expressiveness.

Therefore, non-native English speakers not only have to battle with learning a whole new grammar and vocabulary, they also have to get the hang of the way we use tone to introduce thousands of subtle nuances of meaning. A native English speaker can hear someone’s tone of voice and instantly identify their mood and their relationship with the person they’re speaking to, but non-native speakers a) struggle to read such signals, and b) struggle to give out the right signals themselves.

In his book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell relates an interesting experiment that was conducted recently to find out why some US doctors are sued for malpractice more often than others. The researcher, Wendy Levinson, recorded hundreds of conversations between doctors and their patients, and soon found that she was able to predict which doctors were more likely to be sued.

The difference was not in what they were saying, nor in their diagnostic skill; it all came down to tone of voice. A psychologist called Nalini Ambady took the experiment one step further, taking ten-second extracts of the conversations and then removing the high-frequency sounds that allow us to distinguish individual words. All that was left was the sound of the voices. And Ambady was still able to predict which doctors were most likely to be sued with a similar degree of accuracy!

So tone of voice would seem to play a dominant role in how others perceive us – as Gladwell says:

“In the end it comes down to a matter of respect, and the simplest way that respect is communicated is through tone of voice.”

Of course, tone can also come through in our writing – compare the following two email extracts:

I’d like to see your report as soon as possible.

I’d like to see your report AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

Of course, the first one sounds a lot more polite – using caps in an email comes across as shouting. One of the disadvantages of email is that, unlike typing a letter, sending an email is almost as quick as speaking, so if we’re in a bad mood that mood is more likely to come across in our message.

What this means for those of us working in different cultures is that firstly we have to be more careful with the way we say and write things, as our audience are more likely to misunderstand us; and secondly, we have to make allowances for the way others speak or write to us, as whilst they might sound aggressive or abrupt, they may not mean to.

In my earlier posting Leverage is NOT a verb, I mentioned the metaphorical use of the word ‘vanilla’ (as in ‘vanilla report’, ‘vanilla implementation’, ‘vanilla model’ etc.)

On the face of it, vanilla isn’t a bad metaphor for a basic, no-frills version of a product. After all, vanilla is the basic, no-frills ice cream flavour the world over. Isn’t it?

Well, this brings us to the issue of cross-cultural communication here. In Europe and the US, vanilla is indeed the default ice cream flavour. But not everywhere else.

Here in Vietnam for example, you’re just as likely to be given ice cream made from taro, a type of sweet potato, or durian, the foul-smelling fruit banned by most hotels and airlines, and which the novelist Anthony Burgess accurately described as ‘like eating custard in the lavatory’. Vanilla is a more exotic, ‘foreign’ flavour.

In rural Vietnam, as in other huge swathes of the developing world, the scarcity of refrigeration means that ice cream, regardless of flavour, is a rare, exotic delicacy – describe a car model as ‘vanilla’ to someone from a village in Cambodia and in the unlikely event of them understanding you, they’d probably assume you were talking top-of-the-range.

The French have a similar expression to describe pointless exercises or dry runs (mock exams and the like) – ‘c’est pour du beurre’, meaning ‘it’s just for butter’. Butter in France, as in most parts of the developed world, being a basic foodstuff – a vanilla product, if you will. But again, in countries with scarce refrigeration, or in which dairy animals are not reared, butter is an expensive delicacy, so tell someone that what they’re doing is ‘for butter’ and they’ll doubtless be very happy and work harder!

The point being that it can be fun to come up with these seemingly handy business metaphors, but that caution should be exercised when using them inter-culturally – you may well be misunderstood or simply not understood at all.