We need immediate impacts to push long-term benefits

By Duc Hoang   June 1, 2019 | 05:38 pm PT
Human brains are not good at thinking about the future, so asking people to aim for long-term goals won't work. Immediate reward-penalty mechanisms are key to convince them.
Duc Hoang, journalist

Duc Hoang, journalist

I have been living in Hanoi for more than a decade and have to admit that I have got used to the service (or the lack of it) provided by many famous restaurants here.

It is a common experience in such places that customers are scolded by the staff or receive chilly greetings from the owners. I have been to such restaurants in the Old Quarter, one of the top tourist destinations in the capital city, more than a few times. I choose to ignore their irritating attitude and try to finish the food with patience. It is not something I am proud of.

There was one instance when I wanted to break my rule of not creating a fuss.

I saw a group of South Korean customers standing in front of a stall that serves pho. It looked as though they were trying to figure out whether the Vietnamese rice noodle soup was served with pork or chicken.

At this pho place, there is no menu and no staff steps out to help customers. For decades, customers have had to keep in mind that they have to stay in line and place their orders.

The South Koreans stood there for about 10 minutes. They tried to communicate with the staff behind the stall, but got no response.

The staff, standing around half a meter away from the South Korean group, did not show any intention to help the foreign guests. They ignored the visitors and kept talking to each other. Helping customers – foreigners or locals, young or old – has never been on their to-do list. Losing one customer means nothing to this restaurant. It would still be crowded anyway. This seems to be their business philosophy.

I waited to see what would happen between the staff and the South Korean visitors. Feeling awkward, the South Koreans left. And I sat there, livid with anger, regret and shame because I had visited the place and paid money for that kind of service.

What I experienced that day makes me wonder: How can we make the people that offer such service think about long-term benefits?

The long-term benefits of Vietnam’s tourism are being undermined by facilities, including restaurants, that provide bad service. This is unarguable. But they are focused on immediate, short-term benefits and pay no heed to the long-term impacts.

If I were the owner of a bequeathed restaurant in the Old Quarter and earned tens of thousands of dollar each month, I would have the right to do anything I want and behave just the way I want to and if I were a waiter or waitress earning several hundred dollars a month, I am not going to be thinking about Vietnam in 2030.

People eat noodles soup at an eatery in Hanois Old Quarter. Photo by VnExpress/Phong Vinh.

People eat noodles soup at an eatery in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Photo by VnExpress/Phong Vinh.

While such behavior and outlook is easily criticized, we have to go beyond criticism to understand what’s happening.

There is something biological, it is said, about people rarely thinking about the future. Western scientists have carried out hundreds of brain scans and reportedly found that "the future" is a real problem for the human brain. When you think about your own future, your brain starts to act as if it is thinking about... another person and your medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) becomes less active.

When instant gratification is what every business seeks to provide consumers, it is easy to make a person think about short-term benefits, but much more difficult to do the same thing with long-term gains.

On the surface, there seems to be a lot of focus on "long-term benefits." In social media discussions, statements made by dignitaries, and in resolutions and directions from policy makers, long-term benefits are touted constantly.

But none of this will work, unless we can make long-term gains have immediate impacts, including reward-penalty mechanisms. This is key to convincing people.

For example, I have heard that tourism staff in Thailand will be questioned by the police if they do not smile at visitors, that a Singaporean resident will be fined heavily for littering on the streets, that a German resident will gets an euro for taking four plastic bottles back to the vending machine.

This is not to argue that people in those countries have higher awareness of long-term benefits compared to Vietnamese, but to show that they have legislative and other systems that are converting long-term benefits into short-term benefits.

Legislators in those countries have made efforts to convert abstract concepts like future of a nation and the fate of a planet into imminent impacts that individuals can see and understand.

This effort should be replicated at all levels, from policymakers to community to businesses and individuals.

As a business owner, you cannot just talk your employees about ideals. You have to decide when to give them a bonus, when to honor them and when to discipline, so that they will have short-term engines to achieve long-term targets.

If this happens, maybe one day I can exercise my right to question the service provided by restaurants like the one mentioned earlier, give them a piece of my mind, and tell them, it's official. 

*Duc Hoang is a journalist living in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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