As Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, many of the customs and values are based on religion and it is these values which dictate many Thai people’s lives.
Westerners are often surprised at how conservative many Thai customs are. However, Thais do not impose their values on others and are generally very accepting of Westerners who make mistakes and fail to follow Thai etiquette. This being said, there are certain values which you should strive to follow at all times. As an expat living in Thailand, it is your responsibility to fit seamlessly into Thai culture.
The Monarchy and the Buddha
Never comment on the King – or monarchy in general – as even compliments can be taken the wrong way. The Thais idolise their King and the quickest way to make an enemy is to express a negative opinion about him. If you are in a conversation with a Thai and it unavoidably leads to the royal family, always be respectful if you are asked to offer an opinion.
Always treat images of the royal family and Buddha with respect. Never point the soles of your feet in the direction of a Buddha statue or a photo of the King and never deface an image of either. This can lead to imprisonment.
Head and Feet
In Thailand, the head is regarded as sacred and should never be patted or have objects passed over it. The feet are considered dirty and should never be used to point or be placed near any object which is related to the head. Always take your shoes off before entering somebody’s home and before entering a temple. The easiest way to check whether you need to remove shoes before entering anywhere is to check how many are outside.
Concept of Face
One of the most important rules for those living and working in Thailand is to be polite and respectful at all times. This will ensure that you maintain good relations with colleagues, friends and business associates. Always smile and try to speak softly; raising your voice will be frowned upon. Being courteous is directly related to the Asian concept of face.
Face essentially means pride and to make someone lose face is one of the worst mistakes you can make. Openly criticising someone and having an argument will cause the other person to lose face, which is very hard for Thai people to forgive. Patience and a cool, clear head will ensure that you succeed while living in Thailand. The Thais have a saying “Jai yen yen” which literally translates as “cool, cool heart” and means to always take things in your stride and never become overly emotional. This motto will serve you well while you live here. Do not, however, go to the other extreme and shy away from all confrontation and arguments, just realise that conflicts are rarely solved in the open in Thailand. If you are in management, try not to put your employees in situations that will cause them to lose face, for example by showing their lack of knowledge. Also remember to show respect to older employees. If you choose to “wai” employees, you should actually “wai” a much older subordinate first even if you are the boss. More on the “wai” can be found below.
In the same vein, Thai culture is very focused on avoiding conflict. This means it can be difficult to get a clear answer on some things. The Thai’s don’t even have a word for ‘no’, instead they ‘mai chai’ or not-yes. This tells you how important politeness is in Thailand. If you are in a management position you will most likely have to work very hard to get a subordinate to tell you what they think. Asking yes/no questions to employees rarely lead to good results. Thais don’t like to say no, particularly if that would reflect badly on them. Instead of asking ‘Do you understand this?’, which would lead to ‘yes’ almost always even if a Thai worker does not understand, it is much more beneficial to ask open questions like ‘What do you know about this subject?’.
Thai society is built on a hierarchical structure with age, social position and wealth all contributing to a person’s position within society. Thai people often ask quite blunt questions when first meeting someone to work out their social position. It is common to be asked your age and profession after just being asked your name. The family is the heart of everyone’s structure with parents and grandparents being placed at the top of the hierarchy. Independence and individuality is not given as much importance as it is in the West and as a result, strong family ties are made and used as a support network. This support is often seen in friendships, as well, with the wealthiest of the group paying for dinners, drinks ad social events. At the top of the social pecking order is the King and his family. Below that is high ranking government employees and ‘old’ money business families. Also in the high society bracket are the ‘new-rich’ families. Most foreigners will be seen as middle class in Thailand, since upper class membership is based just as much on connections and family history, two key points that even financially successful foreigners lack. Dressing well, driving an expensive car, and living in the right neigborhood can all add to your social status. Also be careful about socialising with lower classes. This may sound elitist, but Thais are very class conscious.
When you meet a Thai, whether it is for the first time or seeing a friend, the greeting displayed is known as a “wai” (pronounced why). This is the act of raising the hands in prayer and bowing the head. How a person “wai’s” is a symbol of his/her place in society. It is improper for an adult to “wai” a child, although the child should always “wai” adults. When adults “wai” each other, the lower the head is bowed, the more respect is shown. However, as a foreigner, you will not really be expected to know this. As Thais do not expect you to “wai”, you have the choice not to do so. If you do choose to “wai”, you should know how to do so. This is a complicated matter and cannot be described in full detail here, but here are the basics: You should always “wai” someone of higher status than you first. You should never “wai” any service people like waitresses etc. You should, however, “wai” the owner of the restaurant. Do not initiate “wai’s” with people of lower status than yourself. You should always “wai” an older person first unless they are way below you in status, such as if they work for you as cleaners or nanny.
Appearance is very important to Thai people and care should be taken to dress smartly and appropriately, especially when attending formal functions. Gift giving is not as common as in other Asian countries although it is gaining in popularity. Gifts are rarely opened in front of the giver so to avoid any embarrassing situations. For weddings, money is usually placed in the envelope which originally held the invitation. Do pay attention to the way you dress and behave. Keep in mind that Thais exercise much more control of their facial expression. Don’t show your feelings unnecessarily in public.
When it comes to business, Thailand is similar to most other Asian countries. They prefer to build relationships before signing any contracts. Several meetings will take place and dinners will be held before anything is negotiated. Appointments for meetings should always be made in advance and confirmed the day before. Arriving on time will always show respect, but Thais are notorious for their tardiness so you could find you are the one waiting. Business cards are always exchanged and should be offered with the right hand. Take time to read every business card you are given to avoid offense. Business dress is conservative and should always be dark. Skirts should be no shorter than knee length and the shoulders should always be covered. Always remember to wear smart socks as shoes often have to be removed and you will lose face if your socks have holes in them.