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Social behaviourSocial behaviour

At this point, I do not want to bore you with a social essay and I don’t want to repeat the information which is often provided in travel guides about how you shouldn’t touch strangers on the head or show them the soles of your feet; as if this were normal behaviour in the western world!

The reason for writing this section is fellow countrymen who I often came across who made life difficult for themselves and others with their constant nagging and grouchy ways. They often felt cheated on and deceived by their wives or families and then saw this as a reflection of all Thai people. Some of these unhappy people even decided to return to the homeland at some point. This was probably a commendable decision for these people and for society in general.

In order to permanently live in Thailand, I urgently advise you to get to know the culture, the customs and the mentality of the people in the guest country. The Farang’s (Thai term for western people) common reference to the Thai, therefore the standard Thai, does not exist. The people in Thailand are very different individuals. However, due to the education, culture and mentality, several differences to behaviour and mentality in western cultures can be identified.

Thais are generally very friendly and tolerant people who often turn a blind eye to major faux pas by foreigners.

Thai/Farang relationships

Relationship problems between Thais and Farangs are usually caused by misunderstanding of cultural differences and other misunderstandings connected with them.

I don’t want to try and suggest that the some of the wives come from the red light district and are therefore unsuitable for a serious marriage. Some moralistic people may come to this conclusion and it may apply to some women. Lots of Farang husbands with their blunt behaviour, like an elephant in a china shop, may experience a number of shaky relationships.

When you remember that every second marriage in Germany between two Germans fails it is not difficult to understand why a couple, which often has a large age gap, from two different cultures and societies which has different mother tongues is not the ideal basis for a permanent marriage. This can only be balanced out by showing understanding, by trying to comprehend the other culture and by abolishing any prejudices.

Provisions

As an opulent, tropical country, Thailand has never felt the need to make provisions for bad times such as the coming winter. Long-term life planning with provisions for old age was never necessary in Thailand. Functioning family groups replace our insurance system. However, more and more western traditions are being used in Thailand and are even becoming common in family life so that long-term planning is slowly becoming necessary in this culture too. Lots of young Thai families have already recognised the necessity and are therefore attaching more importance to a good school education for their children. Despite this, you can still see that the main focus is the present day. Forward thinking and consideration of the consequences which could happen due to individual actions play a lesser role in everyday life. “Living for the day” is given a higher priority than pondering over the future. Many people believe that your own destiny is already set. The consequence of this attitude towards life is the casual and carefree handling of money. Spending the wages on a celebration today without having school fees for tomorrow is not an exceptional situation in Thailand. Lots of pawnbrokers throughout the country live from this basic attitude to life.

Friendliness

When I visit my homeland I always notice the cool, abrupt and sometimes impolite behaviour which I come across in comparison to Thailand. If you smile at a stranger it can sometimes be perceived as you making a move and in the worst case, can even be understood as sexual harassment.

There is a reason why Thailand is known as the land of smiles. Smiling is an important expression of cooperation. In almost any possible situation, a friendly smile is regarded as polite and is not necessarily understood as affection. A smile can also be used in an embarrassing situation to cover your own self-consciousness. A smile can be used to graciously make up for your own misconduct. A friendly smiling person simply has to be forgiven.

Direct statements which are short, conclusive and get down to the point are not common at all. This is perceived to be impolite. It is common to use very long-winded time-consuming remarks and the statement made can be very unclear. For example, a customer’s requirements which are to be implemented by a tradesman can lead to the strangest of results. The tradesman will usually assure the customer that he has understood the instructions. Subsequent questions which might have made sense are hardly ever asked.

Fun

The lust for life and having as much fun as possible at every stage in life is a central theme in Thailand. This simply makes life more enjoyable and more pleasant. Thais love to celebrate or travel in large groups (family/friends).

The subjects of conversation generally revolve around everything which is fun. The subject of food has a particularly high priority. Conversations about personal matters do not generally take place. Deep and meaningful discussions are avoided wherever possible because there is always the risk that these could lead to a difference of opinion and that would affect the harmony in the group.

In comparison, Farangs often find it difficult to really enjoy life and the financial security which they have built up through years of hard work cannot help them. This is simply a matter of the attitude which is determined by the culture and education. Many poor Thais lead much happier lives than the perfectly backed up Farangs who have made provisions for every possible eventuality.

Lies

The truth has a completely different dimension to western perceptions. Little white lies are used when telling the truth would simply be too complicated. A white lie is even advisable if it means that you can avoid hurting other people.

Negative talk

Negative talk is very unpopular. Moaning and negative gossiping is seen as bad manners. Thais try to provide criticisms in a humorous guise. For example, a local television station reported on a street which was badly in need of repairs by placing a man with a fishing rod next to a large puddle which had been caused by a pothole and playing a funny song to accompany the scene. This meant that the local authority was mocked without anyone having to moan and groan. These happy people are always up for a laugh.

Losing face/criticism

Any exposure of other people is to be avoided at all costs. Compliments and flattery, even if it does not make sense at all, are always welcome. It is absolutely taken for granted that criticism, if it cannot be avoided, is always given without hurting the person. Beating around the bush is the golden rule. It is normal to praise the tradesman first before making a request for a change. You can achieve better results by doing this than by directly criticising his work. A direct refusal of a request is hardly possible for most people. They try to talk their way out of a precarious situation with long-winded talks.

Self-criticism

It is hardly possible for a Thai to vouch for his/her own lack of knowledge or incapability. This is why an electrician may simply not turn up to an agreed appointment again and again and will provide a variety of flimsy excuses. The reason might be that he simply thought he wouldn’t have the necessary expertise to carry out the job but could not possibly admit it. This is the best way of getting out of it without losing face.

Disagreements

In Thailand, the people are very focused on avoiding any type of aggression at all costs. This actually works really well in everyday life. If it does seem like an argument is building up, the situation can usually be diffused with a smile. Avoiding an argument is extremely important. Thais always try to keep their emotions under control and never show the emotional side of their life. After a verbal attack, so much anger can build up behind the smile that the person cannot keep control him or herself at some point. There is now an acute danger of an immediate eruption of anger which usually takes its course without any control over aggression. This type of confrontation can even turn into a bloodbath. In western cultures, or at least amongst civilised people, a dispute culture has developed which usually keeps a lid on the extent of things. This is not the case in Thailand. I recommended that you always keep control of your temper; at least when you come into contact with Thais. A minor situation could quickly escalate into a dangerous situation.

Shouting at other people, in whichever situation, is seen as absolutely unacceptable in Thailand. This theoretically also applies to family life. Practically, this can happen in exceptional situations. I once saw how an uncle told off his three teenage nephews extremely loudly for a full 15 minutes right in the middle of street in our neighbourhood. I was worried that the man would have a heart attack. The three nephews were extremely intimidated because something like that hardly ever happens. It was practically impossible to say one word against him. The uncle was also high enough in the family hierarchy to get away with this.

Social status

Society in Thailand is strongly divided into various hierarchical levels. Each citizen has his or her own ancestral position. Due to the fact that everyone wants to be as high up in the hierarchy as possible, it is normal for people to try and positively affect their perceived social status. On a small scale, this is noticeable due to the well-maintained appearance of the people. It is not at all unusual for the poorest people to be extremely stylish with smart clothes. A large car or house is used to show off the status achieved. It is not important that this standard of living might have been achieved with loans because this cannot be seen by other people. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour often leads to large proportions of the population having big debt problems.  Being rich is a sign of prestige and how the wealth is achieved plays a lesser role.

When strangers meet for the first time, they try to get to the bottom of the other person’s status. In addition to fathoming out the visible clues, they will not shy away from asking indiscrete questions. Questions about the level of education, income and ownership of house and vehicle are actually normal questions and are accepted. However, answering the questions with everything from exaggerations through to lies is just as normal.

This sound really terrible but because it is common practice which everyone knows about, it does not pose the problems which we assume. Everyone must understand how to read between the lines and everyone must understand that others are only trying to be seen favourably.

One or two aspects are certain to be recognised from the western world but it certainly won’t have been reflected in this way.

In restaurants, you can often see how lots of people tussle to pay the bill. Due to the fact that the person who has the highest social position usually pays the bill, this is an attempt to improve their own position.

National pride

Thai people have a highly developed sense of national pride. This should not be confused with racism or xenophobia. The people of Thailand see themselves as one huge family. If anyone asks how you like Thailand you should only answer with the positive aspects if only to be polite. Keep the negative aspects to yourself so that you cannot hurt anyone unnecessarily.

Civil courage

Helping other people is still a matter of course in Thailand today. For example, a thief must reckon with being overpowered by passers-by. If they beat him up as well, the passers-by don’t even have to worry about being prosecuted on assault charges. The police are happy to receive any help and see this as a little bit of prompt punishment. However, it is very difficult to receive first aid. Due to the fact that hardly anyone has this type of training and is understandably scared of making a mistake, the simplest medical assistance cannot be expected from amateurs. Thankfully this does stop people from calling for help and showing willingness to help as far as they possibly can.

Animism

The belief in spirits and all possible supernatural aspects is widely spread. This is also not at unusual in the upper social classes. However, educated Thais will usually say that this only practiced by uneducated groups of society when speaking with Farangs. Man kennt eben die Denkweise der westlichen Welt und möchte nicht als rückständig erscheinen. Due to the fact that no one has an absolute understanding of religions and supernatural powers, discussions about the feasibility are pointless.

I believe that any attempt to qualitatively assess this completely foreign mentality to western people is objectionable. It is simply different and has advantages and disadvantages in individual situations in everyday life. The Thai way of life is established in Thailand. Permanent comparisons are pointless and do not help anyone. Our education and life in the respective cultural circles has made us the people who we are but we can learn from follow societies throughout the full course of our lives.

Final word

I believe that any attempt to qualitatively assess this completely foreign mentality to western people is objectionable. It is simply different and has advantages and disadvantages in individual situations in everyday life. The Thai way of life is established in Thailand. Permanent comparisons are pointless and do not help anyone. Our education and life in the respective cultural circles has made us the people who we are but we can learn from follow societies throughout the full course of our lives.

I do not claim to have found the one and only truth with my remarks; I simply want to reflect my personal points of view which have developed in my 40 years of experiences with Thailand.

Klaus Thiesen
webmaster@siam-info.com

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