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Vietnamese Gestures and Politeness

By Mark A. Ashwill, author of Vietnam Today

Visitors to Vietnam will be interested in this guide to gestures and polite behavior when talking to Vietnamese people. The chart below lists nonverbal behaviors and their meanings in Vietnamese culture.

Like other Asian societies, Vietnam is classified as a "high-context society." This complex and important concept has been the topic of countless books and articles in the field of intercultural communication. In Understanding Cultural Differences (1996), Hall and Hall define a high-context communication, or message, as one in which most of the information already is in the person,while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. In a low-context communication, by contrast, most of the information is in the explicit code-the words themselves.

What follows is a summary of nonverbal behaviors and their meanings in Vietnamese culture.

Nonverbal Expression

Meaning in Vietnamese Culture

Nodding Greeting; affirmative reply; agreement
Shaking one's head Negative reply; disagreement
Bowing Greeting; great respect
Touching a child's head Not appreciated, but not offensive
Avoiding eye contact Showing respect to people senior in age or status or of the opposite sex
Winking Not acceptable, especially when directed at people of the opposite sex
Frowning Frustration, anger, or worry
Pouting Disdain
Smiling Agreement; embarrassment; disbelief; mild disagreement; appreciation; apology

Non-verbal Behavior

Meaning in Vietnamese Culture

Shaking hands Friendly greeting between men (but not the elderly). Not customary between women or between a man and a woman; acceptable between a Vietnamese woman and non-Vietnamese man.
Palm of right hand out, fingers moving up and down several times
"Come here."Not used with
people senior in age or status.
Holding hands with or putting an arm over the shoulder or a person of the same sex
Friendly gesture with no sexual

Holding hands with or putting an arm over the shoulder of a person of the opposite sex
Not usually done in public
Crossing arms Sign of respect
Placing one or both hands in the pockets or the hips while talking
Arrogance; lack of respect
Patting a person's back, especially someone senior in age or status
Pointing to other people while talking
Disrespectful, threatening
Putting one's feet on a table or sitting on a desk while talking

This article is excerpted from Vietnam Today, A Guide to a Nation at the Crossroads, with permission from the publisher. Copyright 2005 Intercultural Press

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