Expats living in Vietnam and “Lost in Translation”


As Vietnam opens up its economy and get integrated deeply into the global playground, the numbers of English-speaking expats continues rising. And yes, if you are an expat and you speak English, you definitely find that language barrier is just a pain in the ass sometimes. Besides heavy workload (expats often holds top positions in Vietnam), you have to listen to broken English all day, or speaking English language slowly and trying to clarify ideas with Vietnamese employees. That really causes headache at the end of the day.

Vietnamese people do speak English, and some of them, especially young people, are quite fluent. But still, that does not mean the messages you deliver are well comprehended. And when important messages to Vietnamese subordinates are misunderstood, they could damage the whole organization. If your subordinates have strong English capability, you are lucky. If not, sometimes you have a personal assistant/translator and he or she will be the main communicator that connects you and the rest of the team. However, in both cases, even you thought everything is doing okay and there are no problems with communication at all with Vietnamese employees, you still have a risk of “Lost in translation”. And it hurts you more than you think. Here are why:

1. In Vietnamese culture, people rarely speak up their opinions.

This is what we are taught in schools for a long time. We just listen and follow the rules. It is the big problem of the education industry and we are trying to change that. It destroys creativity and critical thinking. One person is afraid to have different opinions with the majority. This is opposite to what expats have in their home countries like the U.S or most Western countries. Vietnamese people do not like conflict or disagreement. We rarely throw questions back at what you say. We are afraid to make you feel bad. So when you say anything to us, even we don’t really get it, we still say, “Yes, we got it”. And then we find another way to figure it out (asking somebody else, guessing it, reading more materials….) We do not confront you directly. I have witnessed a lot and I see most of time, when a foreign boss says anything, his Vietnamese subordinates just nod their heads and “yes, yes, okay”. But do they really get the English message? Not so sure.

2. Your assistant/ translator is the only English communicator.

This is what happens when your assistant/translator becomes the only communicator between you and your Vietnamese employees. The rest of the team understand a bit of English but cannot communicate clearly with you. Or there is someone who communicates really well in English but you often interact with the ones who don’t. In that case, the translator becomes the very important person in a meeting! All the important messages back and forth will go through him/her. And trust me, no matter how good he/she is, the messages always got lost. But the worst case is, because you don’t understand Vietnamese, and your employees don’t understand English, nobody knows if the translator got it wrong!!! So even when you say anything and you thought people get it, they might get it in a completely different meaning. It all depends on the translator. It is just dangerous to think that many important decisions in an organization now depend on the translator/assistant of the boss!

3. Lack of follow-up:

Procrastination is big problem here in Vietnam. Sometimes things move really slowly and there is lack of follow-up. You tell your employees to finish a task. They said yes and they leave it there. Or they do it without any follow-up to make sure things get done. And because there is lack of follow-up, it is hard for you to check if your messages were comprehended properly.

4. Expats are always right

Yes, this is funny. I don’t know why it happens. But some Vietnamese employees tend to think that foreigners (not just their bosses) are always right. Somebody told me that it makes sense because foreigners always hold senior positions in the company and their voices really counts. Because of this mentality, Vietnamese employees rarely questions what their foreign bosses say, or even their colleagues say. Some how we think like this “if they got hired to work here, they must be superior than all of us”. That is just terrible mentality.

5. The Vietnamese bosses are always right.

Well, some times you think your Vietnamese bosses or Vietnamese colleagues (the ones holding managerial roles like you) will not have any problems communicating with you. You think they are better than any one else in the company because they are the big bosses. For English communication, you thought you only need to worry about your employees, not the big bosses because they are always right. You might be wrong.

Okay, so what? Of course, those things mentioned above might or might not happen at your workplace. But you have to be careful. Don’t assume that you understand your Vietnamese employees completely when it comes to English communication.

So here are my solutions for you to minimize the risk of Lost in translation

  1. Find a person in your workplace that is really strong in English communication and ask him or her to arrange sometime to join your meetings. He or she will double check what the translator says. That would help a lot.
  2. Always follow-up and double-check/cross-check with different individuals. After your message got delivered in a meeting or in private conversation, try to convey that message again. It helps making sure that your employees really get what you said before. Ask them about what you said before in a different word to see if they still have the same reaction. Just keep following up and doubling check with your employees time after time.
  3. Try to understand relationships and conflicts between your employees. Well, Vietnamese people tend not to be so direct as you are. We talk around the bush and we take things personally. If two persons in your organization do not like each other and you have a message that relates to both, you must be careful and sensitive.
  4. Just find a damn good translator. Find someone who really got strong English communication skills and translator/interpreter skills. Please remember, good English communication skill do not equal to good interpreter/translator skill. It is totally different skill. Do not assume that someone who can communicate fluently in English with you will be a great interpreter. When you interview some body for that job, please have your Vietnamese colleagues with you to double check.
  5. The last thing, try to learn some Vietnamese. Yes, that definitely would help. You don’t have to be good at speaking. Just the listening is enough. It helps you to get some ideas before you hear the whole message from your interpreter. Cross culture problems are inevitable in workplace nowadays. It just need efforts from both sides.

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