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If you sit in any Vietnamese Cafe, you will hear shouts of “Em ơi!” every few minutes. It is an expression that literally translates to “Hey younger sister!” or “Hey younger brother!” — but it is used to get the attention of anyone who is younger than you, like “excuse me, Miss!?”
There are a whole bunch of “.. ơi?” expressions that are used to get someone’s attention, and the rules about which one to use is one of the most difficult aspects of speaking Vietnamese — it may seem alien to non-Asian people. At the most basic level, the “.. ơi?” expressions are conditional on the age-difference between the speaker and the target, as well as the sex of the target.
For instance, the ubiquitous “Em ơi” is spoken to a person younger than the speaker. There is no mathematical formula, but when to switch from one honorific to another, is often benchmarked to family members, like “if someone is the same age as my uncle, I address him as chú ơi“.
- Em ơi – man/woman who is younger than you
- Chị ơi – woman who is older than you within approximately 15 years (like an older sister)
- Anh ơi – man who is older than you within approximately 15 years (like an older brother)
- Cô ơi – woman who is older than you by more than (approximately) 15 years but younger than your parents (like an aunt)
- Chú ơi – man who is older than you by more than (approximately) 15 years but younger than your parents (like an uncle)
- Bác ơi – man or woman who is older than your parents – like your parent’s older brother
- Bà ơi – old women who are your grandmother’s age
- Ông ơi – old men who are your grandfather’s age
Age-Certainty and Gender-Based Politeness in Vietnam
The above rules apply to situations in which you have certainty about the age of the person with whom you are addressing. Interesting situations arise when you don’t know the age of your interlocutor. Men and women differ in whether they should be assumed to be older than they seem (such as when addressing men) or younger than they look (such as when addressing women).
Scenario 1: A young man first encounters a slightly older women
It may be obvious to him that she is slightly older: this would officially necessitate that he address her as Chị ơi (for older women within 15 years seniority).
However, he also knows that it will probably caress her ego for her to seem to be confused for a younger woman. Therefore, instead of him saying Chị ơi, he may say Em ơi as a polite form of flattery.
She may correct him and even mock scold him for not using the proper honorific — but the youthful compliment will likely be appreciated.
Contrast the above young-man-to-old-woman scenario with the reverse situation but reverse the sex of the two persons.
Scenario 2: An older woman first encounters with a slightly younger man
Even if she can accurately guess that he is younger, and therefore she is entitled to addressing him as the younger Em ơi, she may choose to flatter him by saying Anh ơi (used to address older men within 15 years seniority).
Under uncertainty, the unofficial bias to address women as being younger than they are, and to address men as being older than they are.
Explicit and Subtle Cues of Age
The above two scenarios are entirely nullified once there is knowledge about the speakers’ relative age difference. This is why most formal introductions between people will begin with explicit discussion of their age difference.
Bạn bao nhiêu tuổi để mình tiện xưng hô? – What is your age so I may address you properly?
However, the discovery of age-differences need not be so explicit. Vietnamese people are expected to pick-up relationship cues that indicate peoples’ relative age-difference and status. Consider the following scenario.
Scenario 3: Meeting someone through a close acquaintance
Two young male friends have the same birth-day and are going to get bia (beer) at a local cafe. When they arrive, there is a cute waitress who could be the same age as the two boys.
One of the boys knows the staff very well, while the other one doesn’t. The former boy orders bia and addresses the waitress as Chị ơi — this immediately collapses all uncertainty and conveys a wealth of information to the other boy, even though he has never met the waitress before. He now knows that she is older, and to some degree, the other boy and she have a strictly formal relationship.
If the new boy were to playfully address the waitress as Em ơi, it would be ridiculous and awkward, because he knows that she knows he knows that she is older.
In fact, Vietnamese people are very sensitive to these slight cues that convey the relative age between multiple parties and their formality. Even among a group of strangers, a Vietnamese person can listen to a few sentences and quickly establish who is above whom, and whether anyone is related to another and how.
Some Vietnamese people feel that this creates a feeling of connection with other people, whereas in English, such connections are more private.
Status Among Speakers in Vietnam
At the work place, language-rules tend to be more formal. But, age differences can clash with job-positions. Consider the following scenarios.
Scenario 4: The young boss-boy
A young boy is a wunderkind and CEO of a tech unicorn. He is 3 years younger than his female marketing director, Huong. She will definitely address him as Anh ơi, to convey respect — even though, according to their age-differences, she should be entitled to say Em ơi. But, that would probably sour their relationship and hurt her job prospects.
Big bosses are obvious, but the more ambiguous and common situation can result in the weaponization of respectability.
Scenario 5: Male respect in the workplace
A young boy and young girl are approximately the same age and work at a marketing agency. The girl has 2 years job-experience, and the boy is just starting out. At first, she addresses him as Anh ơi to show him a little respect, under some ambiguity of his status and age.
But, after she comes to know his age (and because he is more junior) she stops addressing him with Anh ơi and switches to Em ơi. He finds this awkward and jarring, but he has no grounds for complaint, because it is the correct and official language-rule.
Instead, he may subtlety confide to his colleagues that he thinks she is kind of unfriendly and disrespectful to him. But in doing so, he risks communicating that he is a petulant little snowflate. Young man often think they deserve the inflated respect of his female colleagues who are approximately on the same level as they are.
The Ubiquity of “Em ơi”
Even though “Em ơi” should only be used in specific circumstances, the expression can seem as ubiquitous as “hello”. This may be due the demographics of workers who are in contact with tourists in places like cafes, fashion-shops, modern grocery shops, and travel agents: these industries tend to be staffed by young workers, and especially young women. Hence, this is why you, as a tourist, will likely hear a lot of “Em ơi”.
If travellers instead spent most of their time at saw-mills or construction sites, they may notice more “Anh ơi” being yelled among workers.
Replying to “Em ơi”
When someone than you calls out to you “Em ơi” or “Anh ơi”, you reply based on your relative age difference:
- Dạ – reply to someone older than you / polite response
- Ơi – reply to someone younger than you / informal response
Let us know what you think in the comments below. Have you encountered similar scenarios and accidently insulted someone?