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People’s definition of privacy says much about the culture they come from.
People’s definition of privacy says much about the culture they come from.

At the height of the furore in the Western press about Facebook selling users’ data to ad companies, I asked my students if this concerned them that companies could track their movements on the internet and thus target them with advertisements suited to their interests.  They gave a resounding and somewhat perplexed ‘no’. 

Thinking that perhaps they hadn’t grasped the implications, I asked if it didn’t worry them that strangers could spy on them, look through their photographs, read their messages, work out the finer aspects of their personal life.  Again they said no, and, looking a little suspicious, asked if it concerned me. 

Yes, I said, and immediately found myself on the back foot.  Why? They wanted to know. It was a fair question.  What did I have to hide?  Precisely nothing, but it was the principle, I said. 

In England, people believed they had a right to privacy, to live their life out of the unjustified gaze of strangers. Certain people chose a public life, by attaining a degree of status in politics or the media, or even appearing on the myriad ‘reality’ TV shows on air, but the idea was that they consented to a loss of privacy in doing so. 

Regular people, ‘private individuals’, as they were referred to in the press, could expect to keep their lives to themselves if they so chose, as long as they kept on the right side of the law, and society as a whole.  The recent debate in England over ‘phone hacking’ is really about this question of privacy: how far can people expect to be protected from public prurience?

What year were you born? Where are you from?  Which city?  Are you married?  What’s your job?  How much do you earn each month?  How much is your rent?  How many people live in your house?  Are you going to marry a Vietnamese girl?  Would you prefer to marry a Vietnamese girl or one from over there?

Most of my neighbours don’t ask me these questions anymore, as they know the answers.  Strangers do, though, every day.  Sometimes they also ask me how much I weigh, what my favourite food is, why I ride such an ugly old motorbike. 

My neighbours have a standard line of questioning, applied daily: Where are you going?  Where have you been?  You’re going to work, aren’t you?  Have you eaten yet? 

These questions are so standard that they aren’t even considered questions: they are chao hoi, ‘hello questions’, and apparently the answer isn’t important. They are just a way of saying hello. 

To the English, however, such a line of chit-chat is downright nosey.  We don’t ask each other questions to make conversation, we exchange observations about the weather: ‘Lovely day!’; ‘Yes, it is.’  The weather in England is generally so banal that discussing it rarely requires any thought, let alone signifies a call to action.  Like the chao hoi, it’s simply a way of saying hello. 

People who ask too many questions are called ‘nosey parkers’; and when children inquire too far into matters, they are reminded of the terrifying fact that ‘curiosity killed the cat’. 

If you ask a woman her age, get set for a slap.  On the other hand, tell a Vietnamese person what a lovely day it is, and expect a look of bewilderment.  Perhaps the weather is just generally better here.

I know that I face the Inquisition everyday partly because I’m a foreigner, and especially as I can speak more than enough Vietnamese to answer; but my local friends experience the same.

My students told me so too; and if they are so accustomed to getting the ‘third degree’ from strangers, neighbours and members of their family, no wonder they couldn’t care less if an ad salesman in Delaware wants to pore over their latest ‘likes’. 

What do they have to hide?  Although as consumerism continues to influence culture, and people in Vietnam increasingly see themselves as sovereign individuals as much as members of a family, race and group – for we are most useful as consumers when we see ourselves as such – I wonder how the privacy settings on their Facebook pages will change. 

And for my part, faced with those chao hoi everyday, perhaps my own privacy settings will relax to let in a few more harmless ‘nosey parkers.’

VOV - Alex Sheal


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