How to talk to foreigners in Thailand
We don't bite. Well, a handful might I suppose.
As a foreigner in a strange land, it is generally accepted that the onus is on you to adapt to local customs as best you can. Which is fine, of course - but in an increasingly globalised world, in the interests of harmony it helps to consider both sides of the argument.
So perhaps it's time to explore some of the cultural stumbling blocks us foreigners often run into when dealing with Thai people, and to offer a few kindly suggestions on how to avoid them.
This won't be a list of grumbles about Thai ignorance or rudeness. I don't intend to criticise Thai culture here - that's another debate entirely.
If you're a Thai who couldn't care less about foreigners, don't particularly care about their feelings and think screaming "Helloooo!" at them from the back of your Fino is the height of wit, this article is not for you. This is your country - nobody's forcing you to talk to us, or even particularly like us.
If, however, you're a Thai who is sincere about wanting to talk to foreigners to practice your English, to do business, to work with or to perhaps meet a partner, it wouldn't to do any harm to be mindful of the following points:
1. There is no such place as ‘farangland'
The debate on just what constitutes a ‘farang' has raged in bars, eateries and staff-rooms across the country since the year dot. The Thai response is, for the most part, typically vague, but the generally accepted definition is that it means ‘non-Asian'.
A cursory look at a globe would quickly reveal that this gives the definition a heck of a lot of leeway. Even limiting the description to ‘Western Caucasian' is muddy and ill-defined, and that's not even getting into the issue of non-Western Caucasians and non-Caucasian Westerners.
If you're keen to speak to foreigners, disregard the vague notion of ‘farang-ness'. Get to know them. Ask about their country, their culture, their food, their religion (or lack of). It's half the fun!
More importantly, it'll help you avoid an excruciatingly awkward faux pas like, for example, asking a Jewish person to give a speech on how they celebrate Christmas, or desperately trying to foist ka-nom on a Muslim in the midst of his Ramadan fast (both of which I've witnessed here).
We don't expect you to be able to reel off all fifty states or member countries of the EU, but most foreigners would appreciate anyone taking the time to care about their backgrounds instead of lumping them into an amorphous, ill-defined stereotype.
I mean, my Thai friends eat way more hot dogs than I do, for starters.
2. Don't be patronizing
This is a tricky one. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of foreigners pass through Thailand at any given time. The vast majority of them will not be staying more than a month and are not particularly interested in studying the intricacies of Thai culture beyond learning how to order a Chang and pronounce khob khun khrap/kaa correctly.
It's reasonable to assume that they won't know how to use chopsticks or have never heard of Mukdahan. You'd probably be safe in assuming that they'd prefer you to go easy on the chilies in their tom yam goong or pad kra pao.
However, of those thousands, a not insubstantial percentage will be long-termers: teachers, business-people, partners of a local or just plain old lingerers who fled here for a gap year and never returned.
Don't act surprised and coo at the lifers if they can wield a pair of chopsticks correctly. Don't worry about skimping on the chili if they've been here a while because chances are they'll tell you.
Put simply, if the foreigner clearly knows what they're doing, can order a round of food with minimal problems and pay the right money when presented with the bill, you don't need to talk down to them. You don't need to act amazed, to call up friends and family, to secretly plaster the news over Facebook. Treat them as you would any other friend, colleague or customer.
Although that being said...
3. Be patient
Thai is hard for us, alright? We're not used to tonal languages, and Thai has a few common sounds that most of us simply can't make without a great deal of difficulty. Don't laugh at our no-doubt feeble yet sincere attempts to communicate in the local tongue.
If you're at a bar and the foreigner is furiously gesturing for something that sounds a bit like ‘bee-ah Heineken', you can probably assume it's not a Chang they're after, even if they don't hit that final rising tone.
If you're presented with a foreigner laden with suitcases asking to go somewhere that sounds a bit like ‘don moo-ang'... there's an airport that sounds a bit like that, right? Run that past them instead of grunting "Uh?" and insisting they pronounce that salah uu-ah perfectly before you put the keys in the ignition.
We know sometimes foreigners will act in ways that seem illogical (who drinks beer without ice on a scorching summer evening anyway?), or will ask questions that will seem ostensibly baffling. Please be patient. We're trying to navigate a strange (to us) culture as best we can.
4. Don't be presumptuous
For the final leg of my morning commute here in the capital, I have to get the bus from the oft-congested hub around Mo Chit BTS.
I can't count the number of times the bus with the big English block capitals announcing KHAO SAN ROAD has pulled up expectantly next to me, lingered for a while, horn honking, before roaring off into the traffic with the driver bemusedly shaking his head.
After double-checking that yes, I am in fact wearing an ironed shirt and no, I didn't accidentally don a Bob Marley singlet and somehow transform my shorn hair into flowing dreads during the MRT trip, I go back to waiting patiently, when minutes later the next KHAO SAN ROAD bus will pull up and the next punter will slam open the doors for me.
Of course, by this point his position will be occupied by a row of three or four equally expectant, equally horn-happy taxi drivers, similarly bemused by the sight of this business-clad farang who appears to be waiting for the cattle bus. He must be confused.
Here's the thing - as much as we'd like to spend all our time slurping from buckets and cruising round in air-conditioned taxis, living here the whole year round and earning a less than magnificent salary means that yes, some of us will, at times, have to take the bus. No, not all farang ‘have money'.
We don't all spend our every waking hour and carefully-hoarded satang in the flesh-pits of Soi Nana (this will also come as a shock to quite a few foreigners, too). Some of us are here for purposes other than Family Guy re-runs and lady bars.
Remember what I said about the non-existence of ‘farangland'? There's no such thing as a true ‘farang' either. Don't presume that there is, and don't presume that we're all after the same things.
5. ‘Hey You!' is not a polite greeting
Nor is ‘you, you', ‘where you go', or any variations thereof. Don't believe me? Try addressing the biggest, ugliest bar-stool warmer in any British inner-city local or American backwater dive-bar with ‘Hey you!' and see where that gets you.
Almost all of us are tolerant of this, of course. Those not in the know accept it as an inevitable by-product of knowing only enough English to get the customers in your tuk-tuk or JJ Market stall, and those of us in the know presume that it's more than likely a case of what TEFL teachers call ‘mother tongue interference' - namely, that the Thai for ‘you' and the hyper-polite Thai for ‘sir/madam' share the same word (khon), and are therefore being confused.
Either way, we know you're probably not intending to be rude, and we let it slide for that reason.
But rest assured, if you come across a foreigner who's road-weary after a ten-hour bus ride from the North, laden with heavy bags, chronically sleep-deprived from the Thai soap opera re-runs they'd had to endure for seven of those ten hours and vaguely panicked by the notion of negotiating a hotel room at four in the morning, bellowing ‘Hey you!' in their face is not going to win you any friends.
6. Don't worry!
Really. We don't all bite - well, a handful might, but only if they're paying for the privilege. Over-compensating can sometimes be more annoying than outright indifference.
Remember that strange ghostly apparition you're approaching in the school car park is a human being, with their own tastes, beliefs and opinions. You don't have to play them an Ed Sheeran CD or bust out some poorly-accented urban slang to win them over.
We know that most Thais are fiercely proud of their country, keen to portray it as a dynamic, upcoming powerhouse with a rich culture and fine traditions. We know that most of you would like us to be comfortable here. But taking us to the Lotus food court is not necessarily achieving either.
Ask the foreigner what they want out of Thailand. Learn a little about them.
Sincerity, politeness and a listening ear rarely go unappreciated, and if they are it's a good chance that particular foreigner is not worth bothering with anyway. Getting to know about someone else's culture is rarely a complete waste of time.
Or failing that, take them for pizza. Hey, not all stereotypes are false.
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I was going to offer comments, but you can be pretty sure that Patrick left Thailand not long after he wrote this, so I doubt he'll read them.
By Pat_Bangkok, Bangkok (4th August 2020)
Well done, but your language is still too hard for most English majors in Thailand (of course there are exceptions). Furthermore, chopsticks are not a typical aspect of Thai culture. Traditionally Thai people used their hands (and many – especially upcountry – still do), and later the fork and spoon were adopted as the preferred utensils, which is still largely the case. Chopsticks seem to be the preferred choice for noodles, but some Thai people still prefer the fork and spoon in that case.
By Alex, Amsterdam (13th February 2015)
Patrick, I owe you a drink. You have pretty much summed-up my thoughts on Thailand, especially with the pronunciation issues.
I really should be writing finals, but it is far more entertaining to reflect upon your relation of the Mo Chit buses; they do the same thing to me on a daily basis. It always makes me grin. Sometimes, just for kicks, I will pretend to be excited to see the bus... then not get on. It's the little things in life.
From this point forward, by the way, when asked where I'm from, I am going to say "Farangland." I love it. :)
By Sam, Chatuchak, Bangkok, Thailand (28th August 2013)