Perhaps the best thing about living in a foreign country is the countless cultural anomalies we face daily and need to learn from. Getting them wrong and learning why and when to use the new rules can sometimes be amusing, embarrassing and occasionally offensive.
Apart from the more obvious language and lifestyle differences body language is one of those things that is too often overlooked. Little things we say or actions we do, one’s that we’ve so become accustomed to during our familiar lives can actually mean something totally different – particularly in Vietnam.
In my first few weeks living here I learnt one of my most important lessons. If ever your need to call out, motion a direction or wave someone to come over always make sure your palm is facing down to the ground. Never gesture with your palm up. In fact, this rule should be strictly followed. It is quite offensive to beckon someone with an upward facing palm. This same rule applies for calling someone towards you with a curling index finger which is another definite no-no. Any guesses why?
Gesturing with the palm up is reserved for signalling to animals, particularly dogs. By directing it towards a person you’re not only saying they’re subordinate but also inferior to you. In most cases, this is probably not your sentiment but many Vietnamese, particularly older than you, could easily be offended by it. It’s hard to get used to and actually feels awkward to most westerners as we rarely use a downward palm to gesture anything but the height of someone or something (I can’t think of any other time I have done it).
If your an ESL teacher, it’s especially important to get into the correct habit as you’ll often have to call on students, both young or old. This same rule also applies in other South-East and Asian countries too, so keep it in mind as you travel… unless of course you feel the need to offend random strangers!