About haft pass twelve, I walked downstairs from my rented apartment to the nearby food corner for lunch. I live in a high rise-building block in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the street food in Vietnam is a norm . I have my own kitchen, but eating outside even in a street place brought me a sense of surrounding and communal, a feeling that I miss after working alone. That corner is about 0.5km away from my place. Most customers wear street clothes and a few wears a typical office attires. The food place is buffet-liked. A vinyl in red that says “Street foods – self served”, and no price posted or even the range of the price. Each customer asked for a place of steamed rice, took a grasper and chose their foods. Then they asked how much is this? A response like VND 30k (about US$ 1.3, no tax or tip by the way). Customers ate their foods, took a bamboo stick to pry out any residuals between their teeth, stood up, paid 30k and left. And that was how I ate my lunch. Of course, I do not describe my lunch today but on a bit more serious note.
Interesting enough, the notion of a person walked in to a street corner, ate foods, and agreed to pay with no bargain whatsoever, then happily departed or because they were hurry on to get a quick after-lunch nap, is a perfect example of a contract, in this case a verbal one. The verbal contract is not known as the reliable method to record details and to hold involved parties accountable. But if I counted the number of verbal contract with the written one, that would be in hundreds to one. The convenience and social convention are two features that a verbal contracting is so popular.
The validity of a contract depends in one important feature of contracting, that is outcomes of fulfilling the terms and conditions or deterrence on failure of delivery. Say, a customer wanted to lower the price of his/her lunch because of the less satisfaction after eating, you could expect customers within earshot will pause eating, look at the that person or throw in a look, maybe a head shake, an eyebrows raised or just talk to a friend of how weird or nut it is. Being looked at weird, out of norm is terrible enough not the bargain the price of already finished foods, not to mention some men sat nearby with unfriendly looks and seemed too eager into action. It is not conventional to bargain the food price at a food corner on a street, especially about the satisfaction. Period. My point there is a social norm. If you found something not belong to the food or tasted terrible, you could stop then and there, and asked for a bargain, but for the street foods, those are not are frequent cases.
Verbal agreement on the street is not the same as a verbal agreement in the office, a stark contrast that disheartens those fellows who reverse ‘our words are our deeds’ convention. In the States, almost on-sale items on street has a price tag, and street-food struck has listed their menu with a price.
I lived in the States a few years and knew some fellows who once lived there. In the mist of Donald Trump’s presidency and the world of politics, especially those in DC, the skeptics are appropriate to point our that somebody’s words only matters if that person has not been seen as lying at our face before. If someone lied, made contradicting statements, and repeatedly did so, we accepted that this is new norm of that person since there is no (not yet) consequences of their wording conundrum. A sign of compromise of our perception to ignore a challenge that we don’t want to deal with.
Verbal contract, when I can take somebody words as their intention and commitment, is indeed a signal of an accountable society. The benefit are pronounced. The cost of trimming away legality of the written contract with time and paper is one. The notion that we don’t need a deterrence or a piece of paper to hold other ‘people’s feet to the fire’ is priceless. No (written) contract needed indicates the high-confidence transaction. For street foods, the cost of loosing is small, and the foods are in front of us, the customers are eating, this is an open street, the ground looks dry. Those are the signals for a high-confidence to eat and agreeing to pay.
A gray area when we are not seeing ‘the food’ but rather the promises that one will cook ‘the food’ and one will pay are open to debate. The ‘promise’ convergence is where the most difficult context to dissect. In the States, I could count on an acquaintance if they promised to do things, they will likely do it with no string attached or give a note in advance if they changed their mind. In advance is the keyword here.
The promises are good enough for most daily transaction and taken as a commitment to follow through. Promises, in the States, are the a key components of crediting systems, either in the financial realm or in workplace. The credit score system works on the promise and good intention as well. A bank lends you thousands of dollars as a the credit line with only a credit score, social security number and a declaration of the income. No asset needed to put on hold for such loans. Granted, perjury or lying is a crime in the States, especially with evidence that someone intentionally lied and profited from that lie. That could translate to a government guarantee to the expected norms. The outcome of such supports is not the same between my home country, Vietnam, and the States. The government does have a strong law to penalize wrongdoings but the enforcement is few and far between, thus weakening the guarantee by the government behinds such laws.
Language and communication style does contributes to the confidence notion. English is known like a democratic language in which the focus of communication on the ideas. Vietnamese has a strong focus on the relation on who says to whom. It is weird when I used my native language, Vietnamese, to speak subjectively and avoid using words to emphasize personal credits into the statement. Vietnamese also does not have a lot of phase to disagree politely face to face, but the language does have a lot of swear words and threatening statements. So naturally, we don’t have many options or habit to refuse or disagree in the making process. We agree meant no objection or disagreement so far, and we utter silence to imply a polite disagreement or we do want to join the discussion and then turn to other topics or ask another question to avoid the discomfort when we disagrees without pronouncing it.
Judging the wording by how it sounds is now difficult to translate the intention. By the way, upto this point, my argument is non sequitur or no longer relevant to the title of this writing. Because of the difference between Vietnamese and English, using English to dissect Vietnamese nuance feels like an engineer tries to explain literature by equations.
Our words are our deeds, turn out, more complicated. It starts out as a way of life, a social norm, but in a deeper level that convention or expectation includes the incentizied/decentivized mechanisms, and the government guarantee for such the norms to be favor.
Also, the mean to express intention has different level of commitment in it. An utter of the language itself cannot be the guarantee of a person intention without other backing up mechanisms such as documentation, personal connection, economic benefits or public support. Trying to have win-win situation would be the best. You get the work done, and the other parties that he/she wanted personally. That is a hell lot of debate, right there.
Return to my street food corner, I walked upright to the owner of the shop, says in a warm medium tone: “Can I have a plate of rice, less rice?” and when I asked for the price, I looked at her, rather somewhere else. I ate my lunch, paid the meal, walked back to my apartment, and thought what should I write so that what I see in daily life does not muddle, and here we are.