The Art of conversation

For the past 3 months there has been an overall sense of inevitably about the outcome of many of my daily one-to-one conversations with local Vietnamese here in Saigon.

Communicating with taxi drivers, supermarket check-out staff, waiters, security guards, and the like, more than often becomes a slow, truncated, and unsatisfactory exchange where both parties appear genial and responsive, but neither is really grasping what the other is talking about.

Despite embarking on a short course of Vietnamese, and initially buoyed by some of its relatively simple grammatical rules, the very unfamiliar tonal aspects of Vietnamese remain a point of departure for me – as they do, I have heard, for many others who have come here with European trained diction, and tried and failed to master the (somewhat disputed) number of tones which make up the language.

Some choice phrases I have mastered, others remain impenetrable. My record so far in taxis is being required to repeat the street name I’m heading for only twice to the driver, before receiving an enthusiastic nod of understanding. On average though, you will find me repeating my destination at least four times, before giving up and writing it down on the back of my notebook. Lou is, of course, more efficient than I and has her own stash of pre-prepared addresses written neatly on cards, and sat in her purse waiting to be used.

Upon seeing the street name written down, in English, usually without fail the cabbie will then spark to life, relieved that his fare from me is safe, before saying back to me (as far as my ears can decifer) exactly the words I have been offering to him four times before – and off we will depart.

Once on the move, and to compensate for getting off to such a frustrating start, I normally then unleash my textbook Vietnamese compliment of “what is your name?…my name is Tim” and this is met with a knowing smile – I am understood! – and I warm at the prospect of being in rapport for a sacred few seconds of the time we have together as driver and customer.

This satisfaction doesn’t last long as the conversation is then, typically and rather awkwardly, concluded by the driver pointing to his ID card, stuck 10 inches from my nose on the dashboard, displaying his full name in red letters, by way of giving me his answer. At this point, having used my best lines already, and kicking myself for not having learnt how to say “you been busy today?” I concede defeat.

However, last night made up for weeks of stifled conversations such as these, as I went along to a 4-way Chamber of Commerce networking night, at a trendy French hangout in District 1 (the posh district).

Singaporean, Canadian, French and Malaysian Chambers were out in full, 150 or so people packed in an under air-conditioned colonial reception room, with terraced perimeter, high brown wooden shutters, and a corner bar adorned with anxious staff worried, rightly so, that there might not be enough bottles of beer left in the blue and white cool boxes scattered on the floor behind them, for the crowd of thirsty networkers arriving, determined, from their offices.

During the hour and a half I survived the sauna like conditions of La Fenêtre Soleil, I made up for all the clipped and frustrated one liners had in taxis of late. Not only because the preferred language of the evening was English but the fact that, in Vietnam, “networking” is actually code for talking as much as possible to as many people, at any one time, as you can, with scant regard it would seem for actually making that much sense, or covering specific subject matter.

It is akin to the hour spent at the end of an evening’s student drinking, swaying about in a packed nightclub, darting from one frenetic exchange to the next. Fortunately, last night was a more sober affair, without a loud backdrop of thumping music, dry ice and multi coloured spot lights (maybe I’d have stayed longer if it had been.)

All in all it was a great taster of what it means to network in Vietnam, and to observe that it is the business card, and its application, which reigns supreme on the Vietnam social circuit.

The key to the whole networking concept here is this: provided you place, very deliberately, one of your business cards into your listener’s hand, then in fact it matters not what words come out of your mouth.

Albeit a slightly alien concept to grasp at first, it comes with its benefits, and reminded me of the statistics often used in public speaking about the fact that most audiences will respond not to the content of your speech, but to your tone, your posture, delivery, and how you come across visually. The art of giving out your business card here seems much the same.

Blatantly interrupting other networkers engaged in chatter, stopping mid sentence to head off in pursuit of someone else, taking a phone call on your mobile as someone is telling you about their company – all these things are accepted norms in the world of Vietnamese networking, provided at some point in proceedings you have presented your business card to the person in front of you.

Some people skirting the room yesterday evening had full decks of business cards nestled in one hand, and were dealing them out with the other like playing cards, to anyone within touching range, no words really spoken as their cards were accepted, glanced over and inspected, as someone might receive a hand of blackjack.

It was good fun last night, and I would go again. I came away with a dozen business cards in the end, some useful, and some now sat in Lou’s handbag with our address written on the back for the next taxi ride home.


One thought on “The Art of conversation

  1. Jenny Falcon May 22, 2011 / 11:07 am

    Hi Tim, Just to let you know that I am still finding your narratives so interesting.
    Also, thinking of you all particularly this week-end – sure you are all on red alert! Look forward to hearing the news………… wishing you all the very best!

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