The desire to achieve harmony between the self and the non-self remains an essential preoccupation of the Vietnamese in interpersonal relations outside the family group. The basic principles underlying family relationships are extended to the relationships between members of wider social groups.
Social relationships can refer to a multitude of social interactions, regulated by social norms, between two or more people, with each having a social position and performing a social role. The concept of society as an extension of the family is evident in the transposition into social usage of a language originally intended for domestic life. Vietnamese uses more than a score of kinship terms as personal pronouns. The choice of the appropriate word depends on the relative age, social status, gender, degree of acquaintance, respect, and affection between speakers and hearers who are not related to each other by blood or marriage.
In Vietnamese society, the predominant sentiment in the relation between members of a social group is respect. This is particularly evident in the attitude towards older people. Respect and consideration for old age no doubt derive from the obligation of filial piety that requires young people to respect and love their parents and parent-like members of the family. Vietnamese also recognize that a long life is a sign of kindness and regard on the part of the deity for virtuous people, and that the elders are the carriers of tradition and the embodiment of knowledge and wisdom. Old people enjoy high respect in Vietnamese society, irrespective of wealth, education, or social position. This respect is expressed in both attitude and behavior, particularly in the use of special terms of address and stylistic devices. Unlike Western societies that put a premium on youth, Vietnamese society is proud of its old members. Age is an asset, not a liability.
Teachers, even though they are young, enjoy great respect and prestige in Vietnamese society. In Vietnam the student-teacher relationship retains much of the quality of a son’s respect for his father’s wisdom and of father’s concern for his son’s welfare. The respect that students show to the teachers is also evident in linguistic behavior. The terms of address that students use in speaking to their teachers are the same as those they use in speaking to their parents.
Linguistic devices are one of the many ways that allow the Vietnamese speaker to save face and at the same time allow others to save face. Depreciatory terms are applied to oneself and complimentary terms are used for others. The practice of “beating about the bush” to avoid answering a request in the negative, and the tendency of the Vietnamese student to say yes to questions asked by his teacher stem from this preoccupation with saving face.
“You and I” in Vietnamese
In America, people put emphasis on friendliness in interpersonal relationships while in Vietnamese society the emphasis is more on respect. We may say without fear of error that respect is the cornerstone of interpersonal relationship in Vietnamese society, whether in the family or in social circles, whether on the employment scene or between friends and lovers. This is reflected in the language used by Vietnamese in their daily life.
In making an utterance, Vietnamese simultaneously expresses ideas and concepts and an attitude of respect (or disrespect) towards the hearer. This expression is natural because it is inherent in the nature of the words used, and generally neither the speaker nor the hearer is conscious of it. But, if the speaker unintentionally (or purposely) uses a word reflecting an attitude of disrespect, the hearer will instantly realize it and react to it accordingly.
American people use only word, the word yes, to express agreement and this word is neutral as to respect or disrespect. Of course, an answer with the mere word yes lacks the courtesy conveyed by a longer answer such as “Yes, I am”; “Yes, he did”; or “Yes, Mr. Brown”. On the contrary, the Vietnamese speaker must choose between “Dạ”, “Vâng”, “Phải” to express agreement. In Vietnamese, other people invite us to “xơi” (“eat rice” or “take a meal”), but in replying, we must say that we have already or not yet “ăn” (eat) and not “xơi”. How complicated it is!
The difference between the linguistic behavior of American and Vietnamese people can be seen in the use of personal names. In writing a letter to a person who is not known, to ask for information or to apply for a job, example, Arnericans will usually use the term Dear followed by the person name (the last name, it should be noted); this shows courtesy and friendliness. Vietnamese people, by contrast, use only terms expressing respect such as “kính”, “kính thưa” and never address the person by name, for this would convey an impolite, disrespectful attitude. Conseguently, “Dear Mr. Brown” is not “Ông Brown thân mến” but simply “Thưa ông” or “Kính thưa ông” (“respected gentleman”).
In Vietnamese, special respect is conveyed by using function-words for respect when addressing persons such as parents, old people, teachers, monks and priests, and superiors. The verbal response begins with a function-word such as “dạ”, “thưa”, “dạ thưa”, “kính thưa”. Therefore, the word “dạ”, often translated as “yes”, is actually a function-word showing respect and does not necessarily indicate agreement.
Personal pronouns are a word class in Vietnamese which best reflects this preoccupation with expressing respect or disrespect for other people in language. American people have one word for you to address parents, brothers and sisters, wife and children, friends and foes, and even animals. Likewise, they have only the word I (or its inflected form me) to refer to themselves when speaking. How converlient it is! But at the same time those words lack the ability to express feelings of respect or disrespect of tee Vietnamese personal pronouns. People who are senior in age or status are usually referred to with such term of respect as “cụ, ông, bác, chú, anh, thầy, cha, bà, cô”. People younger than the speaker, or who have a lower status, are usually addressed or referred to with the terms “anh, chị, chú, em, cháu, con”. To show anger and disdain, the terms “mày” or “mi” might be used, and fawning is shown by the use of “ngài” or “cụ lớn”.
Terms of address such as “bác”, “cô” and “anh” are perhaps the most difficult to use in Vietnamese because they can express opposing feelings and sentiments. According to the context, they may express respect or disdain, familiarity or contempt. A Vietnamese addressing a stranger as “bác” may mean respect (considering him on the same footing as our father’s elder brother), familiarity and affection (regarding him as his uncle), or outright contempt (looking down on him as having a low social status).
In conclusion, social relationships in Vietnam is so different from other countries and rather complicated. In using Vietnamese, we cannot overlook this essential feature of Vietnamese culture which is the expression of respect in language.