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.
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