Thais are not being rude or deliberately evasive. It’s just a culture clash…or is it?
Anyone who has lived in Thailand for any length of time beyond a two-week holiday is likely to pick up on certain local patterns of behaviour that seem annoying or rude or just plain wrong. Expats here for a year or longer, even more so.
How many newcomers to Thailand have been left dumbfounded or wound up when dealing with Thais, especially when not in a simple customer / seller situation.
Who's at fault?
But what is the reason behind these ‘misunderstandings’? Indeed, are they actually misunderstandings or is the expat being too generous and giving the local person too much of the benefit of the doubt? Or, dare anyone think it: is the local person just being rude or not bothered?? Surely not? Thai people are always smiling, right?
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle and the causes of culture clashes are multi-fold and depend on the context.
(Note: when referring to Thais in the rest of this article, I do not mean the proportionally small set of highly and often foreign educated Thais that some Westerners work alongside in large corporations in Bangkok. These Thais speak great English but by no means are they representative of the ‘average’ Thai.)
The first point to understand is the context of the majority of foreigner / Thai interactions, which is where the foreigner speaks in English and the Thai person has a limited understanding of English and an even worse ability to pick up accents / dialects, metaphors and inferences, especially when spoken at normal English speaking speed.
To make matters worse, the foreigner often tries to speak a few words in Thai in the vain hope that this will help – it doesn’t! In most cases, his Thai is pronounced terribly and is as incomprehensible to the Thai person as his English. Cue problems.
Seller and buyer / receiver
Another important context is what type of situation the interaction is being played out in.
Visitors to Thailand absolutely love the country – quite rightly – because when they come here, everything is cheap and everyone is willing to help and everyone smiles and things are just lovely! But what is the common theme amongst all these interactions? Answer: the foreigner is the customer, receiver or enquirer and the Thai is the seller, host or pseudo-representative of Thailand. Of course things go smoothly – as long as the foreigner is in a position where he needs to be helped or told where to go or what to do and he asks few questions and goes with the flow, everything goes swimmingly.
But what happens when the foreigner asks a question that does not follow the script in the local’s playbook entitled ‘How to deal with foreigners, Vol. 1’? What about where the foreigner is not buying something but returning something to a store or reporting a problem with their satellite TV service or trying to explain why he needs things done a certain way? Cue problems.
To make matters worse, the Thai person sometimes answers the question or complaint with a response that seems to be nothing to do with the point. There can be several reasons for this:
Situation 1 - The person genuinely misunderstood the issue / question due to lack of English.
Situation 2 - The person understood fine but the question / complaint is a misunderstanding of the foreigner’s - but the Thai person is too polite to point it out or is trying to ‘save the foreigner’s face’ and so answers something else, which is the real point.
Situation 3 - The person understood the question / complaint but can’t be bothered to explain, either because they would have to use difficult English and / or, as per Thai cultural norms, less talking and less hassle is always preferable to having to go into any detail.
Thinking 'too much'
In situation 1, there is not much that can be done as the conversation is going to be challenging and will probably not go much further.
However, in situations 2 and 3, the Thai person does get the issue but his response creates more confusion. The more the foreigner perseveres, asks “why” this and “why” that, the worse it gets.
While Westerners generally want to know the root cause, Thais generally don’t question too much because it just isn’t worth knowing and is time wasted; better to just get to the solution, life is too short. This fundamental difference is why Westerners call Thais ‘fun-loving’ and Thais always say Westerners “think too much”.
The face saving attempt is another major source of culture clashes, especially when it is combined with language ability limitations. The Thai person has the best of intentions but if the foreigner is a bit inquisitive or intent on getting answers to direct questions, there is bound to be trouble.
How many times have foreigners faced a situation where they have asked a simple question and received the response “Please wait a minute”, followed by the person scampering off and looks of consternation and lots of frenzied activity. Who will speak to the poor foreigner to answer his question?
In the meantime, the foreigner is standing there, totally bemused, as, to his mind, the question was fairly simple and perhaps was not even that important and if he had known it would cause such panic, he would have just kept quiet.
Keeping the peace
And then there are the Thais who simply cannot be bothered to explain or deal with problems. As mentioned before, Thai culture is all about peace and harmony and taking things easy and not ‘getting headaches’ from having to explain / analyse / cogitate (perish the thought!) and so on.
Western holidaymakers usually think Thais are all angels and saints who go round all day smiling, saluting and curtsying. When you live in Thailand for any length of time, you realise Thai are no different to any other nationality in terms of ‘being happy’; the difference is in how people handle problems and how they communicate. In the West, people prefer being direct and to the point; in the East, it is the opposite…as a generalisation.
How many expats, at least the more observant ones, have noticed the look of disdain on a Thai store / restaurant owner’s face when he steps in and god forbid, tries to speak Thai. Or how about when waiting to be served at a market, or anywhere where it mostly Thais - and getting completely ignored.
That is when you realise that you are not that special, Thais do not all think you are better than them, they just made you feel like that when you were here on holiday. Now you live here, you see, like every culture and every nationality, there are good and bad aspects to everyone’s character.
Culture clashes are simply an ever-present part of life in Thailand; it is not the same as moving from London to Helsinki, or even Paris. Westerners are more inquisitive, expect more consumer rights and high standards of social interaction and in short, rather entitled. Thais, on the other hand, are humble, rely on themselves, don't expect help from others and are anything but direct. Thais are hardly ever rude, certainly not to foreigners but often deal with awkward situations by avoiding the issue, trying to save their own or your face or just being indifferent.
So what can a poor Westerner do to deal with all this once he has shed those rose tinted glasses and sees a more balanced view of life in Thailand? Does he panic at the thought that the longer he stays, the more he understands about the people, the more he will step out of his blissful ignorance and deal with frustrations every day? Does he scuttle off back home where things make sense and he knows how everything works. Possibly.
Alternatively, he can choose the harder route, which involves:
1. Being more observant (of people’s mannerisms, reactions, subtle body language etc)
2. Being more self-aware of how he is coming across to local people
3. Trying to fit in (without necessarily losing his own identity)
4. Learning the culture (which has nothing to do with temples or not pointing your feet etc)
5. Learning the language…to at least intermediate level and with good pronunciation
To be honest, if that sounds like a lot of hard work, which it actually is, it is often better to remain in that blissful ignorance, semi-holiday mode. You just do what you are told, smile and go along with everything, speak in English and expect high standards of service.
Thailand can be a fantastic place to stay for, say, a couple of years in that mode, working as, say, a teacher and spending weekends partying or scuba-diving or doing all the other great things Thailand has to offer. An extended holiday if you like.
For those that do want to actually get more out of Thailand and deal with locals in a non-customer / seller context, it will probably involve some or all of those five points. That’s the bad news. The even worse news is, the more one learns and integrates, the more the potential for bemusement and frustration.
So what is the good news? Well, once you start fitting in, you have far more rewarding conversations and you are more accepted in society. You know when this is because when people see you, they do not all scurry around trying to serve you – you are just one of the group.
Conversely, when you go somewhere with your Thai girlfriend, Thai people do not just ignore you and talk to her. They look you in the eye and speak to you in normal conversation, not to explain something about Thailand to you but just chat to you like your acquaintances from back home would do at a social gathering.
Now you fit in and you will really love Thailand and all those day to day annoyances will all make sense. For the first time, you see the real Thailand. Enjoy!
Stephen is co-author of a great new book on planning a life in Thailand.
Planning your new life in Thailand isn’t easy. There are many hurdles to jump and potential frustrations galore. From practicalities through to cultural issues, from finances to fitting in and making friends, there is so much to learn. Luckily, you will find all the basics explained in this 282 page book.
Settling in Thailand takes a broad, insightful and balanced approach – neither too cynical nor evangelical, this book sets a precedent in terms of presenting a positive but realistic and non-judgemental description of Thailand life for foreign residents.
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This article was described as exploring Thai culture, which generated certain expectations of its ideas being based upon a sound body of research and literature. However, it provides no insights into Thai culture whatsoever, but instead only stereotypes and superficialities.
By Jesse, BKK (11th August 2018)
Most Thais are taught from a very early age we are Thai and every one else is a foreigner. If you look around you won't see Thais even hanging out with foreigners. The reason being is they will get ridiculed by their friends and family.
Some poor Thai women will marry foreigners because of economic reasons but you won't find most educated Bangkok women even near foreigners. More and more tourist are writing travel blogs about the blatant racism they experience on their so called vacation.
For most ex-pats who live in Thailand listening to music with headphones on is one way to escape the daily racist slurs. Of course Thai people can smile for many reasons but it is not because they feel sorry for you being here.
Actually when all is said and done, no one invited foreigners here and if we don't like the way we are treated we can always go back home. Let's see your big smile now.
By john doe, bangkok (7th August 2018)
I could not possibly have said it any better! Finally, someone who with some perspective and common sense and a balanced view of living abroad. It is utterly naive to put Thai people on a pedestal and conversely, it is ridiculous to blame local people when things do not go how an expat expects them to go...and complain but refuse to leave and go back home to the West. Neither extreme is sensible and as you said, learning the language and being polite and having some self-awareness goes a long way.
Absolutely delighted you mentioned the libertarian point - I am very much a libertarian and had intended to write an article on those themes, as compared to the West. I am convinced that, like you, many foreigners, implicitly, find that to be the best aspect of Thailand. It is live and let live and that is absolutely fantastic for most Westerners.
By Steve, Thailand (7th August 2018)
All the best advice I ever got was from expats - mostly those from the West, but also a Japanese friend of mine who has a love/hate relationship with Thailand. I've also lived in Japan and I loved it there. It's an awesome place but all the wonderful things you see there come at a heavy price.
The best bit of advice I got was 'don't take yourself too seriously". I think this is good advice living anywhere but especially in Thailand. I'm a libertarian so Thailand can be a fantastic place for me. Bar the yearly trip to immigration to renew my work permit, nobody bothers me. No one tries to force me into doing anything. I'm an outsider and I couldn't be happier about that. Some foreigners sadly go a little mad knowing they'll always be outsiders. I say embrace it because you don't have to worry about the social pressures.
My wife is Japanese so I feel a little bit out of the loop. My friends talk about their girlfriends and wives and a lot of it is lost on me. I live here because my wife was sent here to work. She's been sent here permanently and she loves it here. I won't go into the pressures and stress of Japanese culture but she enjoys working for an American company and being away from all that. She loves being an outsider, too, although many people assume she's Thai, which is good for paying local prices.
Thailand is a great fit for me and my wife. I'm learning Thai at a reasonable rate and I don't overthink the whole culture thing. If you go around being a nice person and being polite, you're very unlikely to have any problems here. I don't know why anyone would feel the need to read in-depth information about Thai history, culture and religion. What happens when you understand it all? How does it change anything? By all means gain knowledge wherever but knowing it and preaching it to other foreigners won't make you any friends. We're all 'farangs' at the end of the day. Most people regardless of their culture just wanna get through the day, pay their bills and support themselves or their families. It doesn't need to be overthought. Just smile and people will smile back at you. Everything else you learn as you go. Experience is key.
By Liam, Bangkok (6th August 2018)
Obviously we cannot generalize any findings from such a small sample size and it appears there was no random sampling done (as it was obviously not an academic study). I suspect you chose to interview people like yourself. So it is kind of a here are a few opinions and experiences of me and some people sort of like me who are living in Thailand.
What do you mean by “expat?” How many people from Malaysia were interviewed? Or China? Or Ghana? Or Sri Lanka? Or is it mostly ideas from working class/middle class British blokes? (Nothing wrong with the opinions of working class British blokes but their experiences are likely to be quite different from the experiences of people from other groups).
Ok, it is what it is. Maybe the book is insightful, but I have no reason to assume it is. And the segment you provided here did not seem to offer much beyond simplistic stereotypes with little demonstration of understanding of either the research done on tens of thousands of “expatriate workers” nor a deep understanding of Thai culture, history or religion.
Maybe it really is in some peoples’ view as you proclaim “one of the most broad, balanced and insightful books written on expat life in Thailand.” But the sample provided doesn’t show this and the credentials of the authors aren’t very convincing either.
But hey, maybe others will disagree with me and find something useful in yet another self-published book written by a short-term expatriate living in Thailand without any expertise in the topic. You sure are not the first person who felt there is a market for this type of book after living here for a few years, and was willing to finance the publication of his or her book.
Good luck, maybe there is a bigger market for this type of publication than I realize.
By Jack, Here, not there (3rd August 2018)
"The book contains interviews with 13 expats in Thailand (one of whom is Phil - the owner of this site and in Thailand for 27 years); when added to the two co-authors, there is a total of 150 years of experience of living in Thailand behind the opinions and suggestions in the book"
I don't think that is going to convince Jack somehow. Certainly not if my name is attached to it. But worth a try, Steve,
By Phil, Samut Prakarn (3rd August 2018)
Thanks Jack for your comments.
The book contains interviews with 13 expats in Thailand (one of whom is Phil - the owner of this site and in Thailand for 27 years); when added to the two co-authors, there is a total of 150 years of experience of living in Thailand behind the opinions and suggestions in the book.
Quite frankly if someone wants / needs to study a social science analysis of Thai culture, in order to decide to move to Thailand or get an insight into what life is like here, as opposed to hearing it from people who actually live here, speak the language fluently, have Thai spouses, run businesses or work here long-term, then, yes, the book is not suitable for them.
For the rest, it is one of the most broad, balanced and insightful books written on expat life in Thailand.
By Steve, Thailand (3rd August 2018)
I have my doubts the market is demanding yet another self-published book giving amateur advice on Thai culture and working across cultures. There are many good studies and books written by experts for a western audience in cross-cultural management about working in Thailand, or there are many others which take more of a country/regional studies approach which summarizes a deep understanding of Thai history, religion and culture to present to westerners in a more concise format. This understanding it is hoped can help a person understand the foundation of the new culture while adjusting and learning. These types of information would in my opinion be much more helpful for a person moving to Thailand than yet another subjective self-published book written by a short-term expat without any specialized training or education on the topic.
That is not to say amateur advice and observation is worthless, I sure have picked up a lot of ideas and useful information from chatting with and listening to non-experts, but when presented with the option of following medical advice from a friend who has had the same illness or a trained doctor, I would go with the doctor every time.
I know the time and effort it takes to write a book, and I understand the desire to promote the work once it is finished, but from the short piece presented which seemed to rely mostly on stereotypes without any backing evidence that what is presented is the way things really are in Farang-Thai interactions, I think I will pass on buying the book.
If others find information gathered and presented using this approach works for them, then go ahead and purchase a copy.
By Jack, Here and there (2nd August 2018)
Agree with you Steve. I, or any Brit, could equally write an article on British people and it would be a generalisation but with lots of uncomfortable truths. In fact with us, it's the other way round - we spend most of our time criticising ourselves and being embarrassed at the slightest hint of patriotism and we are often amazed foreigners think so highly of us...mostly based on our historical status and achievements...and Premiership football in more recent times.
By Steve, Thailand (30th July 2018)
Definitely a sweeping generalisation, just as "Thai people are fun-loving" is too - generalisations can be positive and negative.
People are actually not that different either - we like to think we are all individuals but in reality, the majority of people from any given country / race will have similar reactions, similar social attitudes etc. but plenty of differences based on upbringing, political leanings etc => culture.
I do admit using the word "Thais" made me uncomfortable when writing it but it was necessary to refer to the attitude of many foreigners in Thailand...often the ones who know very little about Thailand or Thai life or the language or the culture or, quite franky, anything.
By Steve, Thailand (29th July 2018)
I think we should bear in mind what foreigners visiting the UK experience. I had a conversation with a French guy who told me that all the English people he met at his hotel in Corsica were so polite and pleasant that he decided to visit England. Imagine his disappointment. No-one attempted to speak French, and for the most part people were unwelcoming and rude. He didn’t appreciate that the type of English person who might take the trouble to visit Corsica was not an average Brit. I was embarrassed to be British, and not for the first time.
What kind of Brit visits Thailand, on average? For my part if someone tells me there are Brits in a nearby bar, I walk the other way. It’s very easy to adopt the “chip on shoulder” attitude of most Farangs living in Thailand, particularly when you can’t speak or understand Thai, and to get the impression that everyone is taking the piss.
My own experience was massively improved by going out with my wife’s eldest lad. He doesn’t have enough guile to disguise what is said, and translating instantly with limited English would reveal any animosity or ill-feeling. I am old, so maybe the inbuilt respect for older people kicks in; or maybe I am fortunate in the people I meet?
Thailand is a much more civilised and pleasant place to live than anywhere I have ever been, and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone.
By Steve, Jomtien (29th July 2018)
As soon as I hear the word 'Thais' I'm sorry but I think - oh here we go, another sweeping generalisation. Admittedly this is then fleshed out with some decent truisms. BUT - I think this type of essay has been done to death. Let's just sum it up with a few bullet points and be done.
-People are people, we're all different and our behaviour varies anyway, pick a day of the week.
By Dan, UK (29th July 2018)