Current Practices

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Paradoxes in Vietnam and America: "Lessons Earned"-Part I

Vu Van Tuan, Lecturer at the National Economics University Business School in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Nancy K. Napier, Professor of Management and International Business and Director of the International Business Consortium at Boise State University's College of Business and Economics

Now I understand why Americans are so aggressive. Your doors to office buildings and stores are so heavy that you have to be really strong to push them open. That teaches you to be powerful and aggressive in your work and life as well.

Vietnamese working for a software development firm

All cultures and countries have their own set of inconsistencies or paradoxes. We rarely identify them in our own cultures but instead see them as something that "others have." In this discussion, we illustrate such paradoxes and how employees who work abroad and their organizations can use those inconsistencies as a way to better understand and work within an environment that is not their own.

We provide examples of some of the issues that arise when people work in countries and cultures outside their own. These are strictly our own observations, rather than systematic surveys of existing conditions. Our focus is on developing countries generally and Vietnam in particular (from the standpoint of Americans), and on working in western cultures, including the United States and Australia (from the standpoint of Vietnamese). We use "paradoxes" to identify some of the reasons for frustration and stress, and try to suggest ways to deal with them.

There may be many--and alternative--reasons for our observations. Cultural differences, the ownership structure of firms (i.e., state-owned or public sector organizations may differ from "private" or publicly held films), or stage of economic development may each influence the types of paradoxes or observations. We try to point out where those kinds of factors may come into play. But, in this discussion, our aim is to help raise awareness generally and of human resource managers, in particular, because they typically work closely with preparing and dealing with expatriates who are transferred abroad. Some of the more commonly held perceptions (by Vietnamese about Americans and vice versa) are identified, to build understanding about our occasional difficulty working together. During this project, we've wrestled to understand some of the "paradoxes" we found in each other's country. For this reason, we call these ideas "lessons earned," rather than simply "lessons learned."

Working abroad: 1% Adventure, 99% Frustration

Working abroad can be a life-changing experience, yet, like any such experience, it can be painful and frustrating. People who work outside their home countries typically go through predictable stages of adjustment, from exhilaration and curiosity to the new situation, to settling in, to frustration in finding that their usual approaches to getting things done "just don't work," to acceptance of the new situation and its constraints as normal, and finally (if lucky) to adjustment and becoming an effective contributor in the new environment. The "adventure" of a new situation reveals its own routines, mundane aspects, frustrations, and stress, just as any work environment does. For Americans working in Vietnam, the frustration may come from an inability to get as many things done in a day as they can "at home." For the Vietnamese working in America, the stress may stem from "higher expectations" about the quantity of work to be performed in a day versus what they are used to "at home."

In addition, working outside one's home country can bring out a different set of cultural challenges from learning how to talk, sit, eat, react, propose, negotiate, disagree, dress, and behave in just about any other human interaction. It means adopting a childlike willingness to learn, but a wise older person's willingness to suspend judgment. …