The problem with Vietnam's deference to hierarchy, seniority

April 1, 2022 | 08:09 pm PT
Saadi Salama Diplomat
Hierarchy and seniority have always been a feature of Vietnamese society. While they may foster respect between people, they also discourage fairness, transparency and progress.

My shoulder was dislocated around three months ago. It is healing, but the pain still lingers in my arm.

I asked many doctors about how to relieve the pain, and each had their own recommendations even if they were working in the same department.

Some doctors said they wanted to speak privately with me because their ideas were different from their bosses’ and they were afraid to speak up at meetings.

It is not uncommon to see subordinates unwilling to share opinions that differ with their bosses’, especially in a country so influenced by Confucianism as Vietnam.

I have seen it so many times when I worked with state agencies here.

When I had some new idea I wanted to discuss with Vietnamese partners, I would speak with some lower level employees first to see if it is actually feasible, and then ask them to propose the idea to their higher-ups.

Most of them, even when they believed the idea was sound, would tell me to put it on paper so that they could send it to the bosses for evaluation. They do not dare say they like the idea or it should be implemented; that responsibility rests with the higher-ups.

Sometimes at state agencies, employees do not even dare speak their mind because they are afraid of being seen as "too competent", "show-offs" or even "trying to win their boss’s seat". These fears only make the workplace much more inflexible and complicated.

This is what people call the "power distance". Hierarchy and seniority play an important role in several East Asian cultures, with those in lower positions tending to show respect and reverence for those in higher ones.

While respect and all is fine, the "power gap" may also prevent people from speaking up and sharing their opinions, especially when they differ from what higher-ups think.

In fact, it can translate to real problems in the real world.

In the past South Korea’s rate of aviation accidents used to be higher than the global average. When researchers studied conversations in the cockpit after accidents occurred, they found that co-pilots were often reticent when discussing with the captains. If a captain’s mind is in disarray during a crisis, a co-pilot’s decisiveness and willingness to speak up might be the difference between life and death for the entire crew and passengers.

But the power gap often prevents that.

South Korea later implemented a language change in the cockpit, requiring pilots to use English instead of Korean. This is where language’s capability to shift perceptions and thinking comes into play.

In English, there is only "I" and "you". There are not many honorifics to place speakers in various positions of power, and so the power gap can be narrowed a great deal.

That small change has helped South Korea become one of the countries with the highest level of aviation safety in the world.

So what about Vietnamese? When I first came to Vietnam in 1980 to study Vietnamese, one evening I went to a train station, the only place that was open 24/7 at the time.

To practice my Vietnamese, I asked several passersby the same question: "Is this the train station?"

While they all affirmed that it was indeed the train station, they used various honorifics depending on their age. The older ones said "Ờ", the younger ones said "Phải" and the youngest said "Vâng".

It is only one example to show that the sense of hierarchy and seniority is hard-wired into the Vietnamese language, and manifests itself even in everyday conversations.

I like that in Vietnam the elderly are often respected and valued. But when it comes to work and relationships, things should be fair and transparent. Your bosses are not always right and not every older person knows better. To not dare speak up because of a human construct like hierarchy, even at the expense of common interests, is not right.

In foreign organizations, there are always departments and hotlines where employees could report their bosses’ mistakes while remaining anonymous. Vietnam may also be moving toward that direction to eliminate the so-called power gap.

Workers should also receive yearly training in critical thinking and constructive criticism. In truth, there are many leaders who are open to what their subordinates have to say, but employees are often too afraid to even try.

The power gap is the reason why so many organizations are stuck in their old ways though things could be better. New ideas wilt over time, and bureaucracy naturally follows.

The story about my injured arm is only a small example, but it is totally possible for the power gap to lead to real issues with devastating consequences.

It is everyone’s job to fix that.

*Saadi Salama is the Palestinian ambassador to Vietnam. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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