By now it’s probably clear to you that culture and customs in Thailand can be complicated, and therefore our social etiqette or “manners” can seem difficult for you as a Westerner to understand.
We are raised from an early age to recognize high and low status. We instinctively know how to speak and behave based on the kinds of relationships we have with people. A person’s age, sex, profession, or level of status and power will determine what we say and how we act – because manners and the ways people speak change depending on who we’re talking to.
But not only are we trained to recognize “high and low” social relationships, we are also raised to be grateful. We do not forget good deeds done to us, and we look for opportunities to return the favor. We learn to be tolerant, patient, always well-mannered and considerate.
We are also taught to be very respectful of people’s feelings and preserve their dignity. So we are very conscious of not being rude, unkind, or unnecessarily direct or blunt with our honesty.
As a Westerner visiting Thailand, you can expect a warm and friendly welcome, plenty of sanook, and generous treatment by your hosts. Learning about our culture, and a little bit about the common courtesy of everyday “good manners” will be very much appreciated, and will help you enjoy your travels here even more.
Learning the common courtesies, though, is a little bit more complicated than just shaking hands and speaking politely. In Thailand in order to be a person with good manners, you have to be constantly aware and very careful about almost every gesture, movement, or word spoken!
If you’ve never travelled to Thailand before, you might easily get confused by all the different behavior here – and take offense when none is intended. Worse still, without a basic understanding you might appear rude or offend the very people you’re trying to impress the most!
And isn’t there a common phrase in your culture? “You never get a second chance to make a first impression!”
Let me help you make a great first impression on anybody you meet in Thailand — by explaining some of the everyday courtesies and common good manners that will help smoothe your way.
Show Respect with your Body Language
As I explained earlier in this book, Thailand is a “high context” culture – meaning we pay the most attention in any conversation to what is NOT said. In other words, actions speak louder than words. That’s why I’m starting this discussion about manners with body language – the unspoken part of communication that speaks the loudest to us. Westerners tend to make bigger, broader gestures with their hands, raise their voices to be understood, and allow their feelings to show on their faces. We Thais are used to keeping our body language – our gestures, voices, and facial expressions under control – so we may be a little harder for you to “read.”
Keep Your Hands to Yourself
In Bangkok, most Thai people have adapted to the Western handshake as a greeting. But it’s an accommodation to your ways, not natural for us. So if you stick out your hand when you’re introduced to a Thai person, don’t expect a firm, hearty, three-pump handshake in return. That’s because we Thais do not touch each other in public. We greet each other with a wai, the position of our hands and the nod of our head indicating our respect for the other person’s status and position.
And depending on the culture you come from, or your family origins, you might be comfortable touching people to show your warmth, concern, or good intentions toward them. A pat on the shoulder or a touch on the arm may be very natural for you. But in Thailand such gestures can be horribly misunderstood — no matter how kind or honest your intention. Particularly if they occur in public, and particularly if you, a man, are touching a Thai woman.
In our culture, it is considered extremely impolite for a man to touch a woman in public, and a woman is likely to be highly insulted. But because she’s trained to keep her body language under control, you might never know how insulting or rude your behavior has seemed to her.
So if you’re dating a Thai woman, visiting friends, or just appreciating children playing in the park, keep your hands to yourself. Do not express your goodwill or friendliness or warmth with even an innocent touch on the back of the hand, until your relationship is firmly established and you know each other very very well.
And for sure, don’t expect a big hug hello or a kiss goodbye from someone you’ve just met!
“Mind Your Head!”
It is very important for you to understand that we Thais consider the head the most sacred part of the body. Never…ever…touch a Thai person’s head, regardless of their age. Not even a baby’s! This reverence for the head also applies to religious images or statues. So never…ever…touch a Buddha figure or a statue of the king or other revered person on the head.
And since we’re on the subject of “minding your head,” it might be important for you to know that when you are talking with a Thai person, nodding does not mean that person agrees with you. When they nod, it’s to indicate that they are listening to you. And there you have a potential misunderstanding! If you want to make sure they agree with you or understand what you are saying, ask them gently what they think about it. DON’T ask “do you agree?” or “do you understand?” Because the Thai person will not risk losing face or causing you to lose face by admitting they don’t.
“Keep your Feet to Yourself!”
Just like the head is the most sacred part of the body, the feet are the lowliest and dirtiest part of the body. They are used only for walking. They get dirty working in the fields, walking on the streets, and they pick up all kinds of debris.
We Thais are accustomed to removing our shoes before going indoors. And once the shoes are off, our feet are tucked away out of sight. We do not rest them on the coffee table. We do not use them to point at something. We do not use them to kick the cupboard door closed. When we sit down, we do not jiggle our foot up and down. We make sure that wherever we are, the soles of our feet are not pointing at anyone. And we do not hold our feet up to indicate we want a pedicure!
A Western guy we know invited his Thai girlfriend’s parents to his home for the first time. When he sat down on the sofa and put his feet up on the table, her parents were so horrified they fled the apartment and refused to speak to him again. It’s not an exaggeration to say that being ignorant of “foot etiqueete” can cause great offense and cost you the very goodwill you want!
Respect Your Elders
We Thais show respect to elderly or more senior people non-verbally. First, there is a difference in the greeting – the depth of the bow and the higher placement of the hands in making the wai signifies greater respect (see Chapter 9). But so does our physical position to them when we’re in the same room together.
For example, if an elderly person (or other higher-status person) is seated, we would never stand near them with our head higher than theirs. No well- brought-up Thai person would! Instead, we would either sit at their feet or crouch so that our head is lower than theirs.
Likewise, it is not proper to talk to someone with more senior persons sitting or standing between you. That will mean you are talking over the head of the senior person, and no Thai with good manners wants to do that.
Show Respect with your Conversational Skills
While we Thais will certainly delight in you just being yourself, if you really want to make a good impression you might want to pay more attention to what you say and how you say it in conversations – and be a bit more sensitive to your environment than you are used to. Here are some tips:
Keep Your Voice Down!
By nature, Westerners talk louder than we do. It’s just part of your outgoing, exuberant nature. And some Western cultures are just naturally louder than others. Americans and Australians, for example, are louder than the British or Canadians. Not right or wrong, just different. And, comically, some Westerners seem to think that talking louder helps people understand them better.
But in Thailand, loudness is often a signal of anger or conflict – something we try our best to avoid. If you are introduced to someone for the first time, or are in a group of Thai people, be careful with the volume of your voice so people won’t misunderstand and think you are too aggressive or rude.
Watch Your Language!
No matter how common it may be in your language, swearing, cursing, or bad language is not common here, and is considered extremely hurtful and offensive. Whether we understand the words or not, just the sound of cursing is unmistakable to us. It sounds violent, angry, ugly and aggressive, and it makes us extremely uncomfortable.
We have friends from parts of the world where swearing is considered a colorful art form. But it’s taken me a long time to get used to hearing it and not getting offended or taking it personally.
Another thing about language that’s difficult for us Thais to understand is sarcasm or irony. The key to sarcasm is creating two different messages – one with your tone of voice, and the other with your words. Left to our own devices, we Thais pay attention to the tone of your voice and the expression on your face – not to the words you are using. So the finer points of sarcasm are lost on us, and we are likely to misunderstand or take offense.
Earlier in this book, when we talked about the differences between Thai and Western attitudes of “me” vs. “we,” and “nurturing” vs. “achievement,” I pointed out that in your culture standing up for yourself, expressing your opinion, stating your personal preference, and arguing for your point of view are natural, right, and expected. Some Westerners even seem to enjoy “arguing for sport.”
But we Thais prefer to blend in, avoid direct argument or confrontation, and generally do whatever we need to do to smooth over a situation and achieve peace, harmony, and agreement. We see raised voices, confrontational language (like “How can you say something so stupid!”) as aggressive, rude, and thoughtless.
So it’s important when you’re conversing with Thai people that you show more respect for others than you claim for yourself. I’m not asking you to “go against your grain.” You can show respect for someone else’s point of view without giving up your own. All you have to do is say something like “I see what you mean,” or “I understand that’s important to you” and you’ve avoided an argument altogether!
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