Of Intercultural Incompetence & Chutzpah


My wife and I recently had lunch at a restaurant in downtown Hanoi.  It was after the 12 noon rush and there was only one other guest where we chose to eat, a middle-aged white expat man who was eating, drinking, and reading a book.  So far, so good, right? 

After a couple of very quiet telephone conversations, he asked my wife – in good Vietnamese – if she would please not talk on the phone because he was trying to read his book. (Being the bad boy that I am, I told her to go ahead and make some more calls.) 

After we finished our lunch in an atmosphere of tension, I got up, looked him in the eye, and asked him if he spoke English.  “Yes.”  I then asked him how long he had been living in Viet Nam.  He (proudly?) replied, “20 years,” to which I responded, “Your Vietnamese is very good but you don’t know Vietnamese culture,” the ultimate insult to an expat who thinks he knows the culture, in addition to the language.  My parting advice to this hapless fellow, sitting there looking dumb, mouth agape, was to stay at home, alone, if he wanted to read his book in peace.

That was the first time in the over 12 years I have been living and working in Viet Nam and the over 22 years since my first trip here that one person had the gall to admonish another for using a phone in a public place.  It wasn’t about speaking loudly, which is not uncommon here and in many countries, including the US, but about simply talking on the phone. 

This guy was a perfect example of someone who had mastered Vietnamese but who insisted on imposing his own code of conduct on others, something he had (has) no right to do.  Another recent example is of a young US American, also fluent in the language, who put both feet into his mouth when he insulted a national hero in a flippant Facebook post aka comeback in a snide expat game of one-upmanship.  (The backlash and blowback were fast and furious.)

Was it intercultural incompetence, white male privilege, a neocolonialist mindset, individual rudeness, or all of the above? 


P.S.:  If he plans to repeat this cultural mistake in the future, he should be careful who he scolds.  The next outcome may not be as genteel.  He didn’t look like the type who was ready to “mix it up” in schoolyard fashion.