It’s one thing to learn a spoken language. It’s quite another thing, but also very essential, to learn the unspoken language of a culture.
One thing is for sure, Thai culture is much different than Western culture. It can be a little disorienting at first, but if you are open minded and willing to learn, you can adjust quickly.
Here are just a few key parts of Thai culture:
The Wai– The Wai is the way that Thai people greet one another. In the West, we shake hands, but in Thailand, we wai. Both hands are raised in a prayer like manner, touching the body between chest and forward. The higher the wai the more respect is being shown. Usually juniors will wai seniors first. The wai is used to show respect, courtesy, and even worship. If a wai is not returned when given it denotes that the person who did not return it is higher in social standing. For instance, the wai is generally not returned to waitresses and waiters at a restaurant.
Jai Yen– This literally means “cool heart.” It is in distinction to “jai rawn” which means “hot heart.” Thais value keeping your cool, especially in public. It doesn’t matter how bad the situation gets in personal conflict, the Thai will work to keep cool and keep smiling. Anyone who carries on in public is seen as weak morally and a great embarrassment to himself and others. I find that we in the West tend to be alot more aggressive in interpersonal relationships than we realize. If you live in this culture any length of time, you will have to change or you will crazy! Although Thai people put alot of emphasis on being polite and courteous in face to face interaction, those rules generally go out of the window when it comes to traffic and cutting in “lines.”
Mai bpen rai– This means “it doesn’t really matter.” It is the most famous saying in Thailand and is used to diffuse any awkward social situation where the other person is clearly in the wrong but social customs won’t allow for directness. It is also a way to help keep a “cool heart” when dealing with difficult situations. It most probably stems from Buddhism where detachment is a religious virtue. We have learned to use this term often! It has helped us realize that there are just some things that are out of our control and no matter how angry or upset we get about something, it will not change. We have to change.
Hierarchy- Thais generally don’t believe in the equality of all men like we may believe in the West. They can easily see one person being superior to the other. When Thais meet someone new, they will immediately try to place you within a hierarchy so they know how you should be treated. This can lead to some very personal and awkward questions for the Westerner like what college did you graduate from, what kind of money do you make a month, and who are you connected with? Status can be determined by clothes, general appearance, age, job, education, family name, and social connections. Missionaries can be a hard bunch for the Thai to pin down, especially those who are from a less formal background. Because we are classed as “farang”, we are automatically stereotyped whether we like it or not. This weakness is also found in the Thai churches as a cultural norm.
Losing Face- Thailand is a non-confrontational society, in which public dispute or criticism is to be avoided at all costs. You are not allowed to “tell it like it is.” Openly criticizing a person causes them to lose face and suffer disgrace. This is a huge deal to the Thai and will likely ruin a relationship for a long time, if not permanently. If two parties disagree, one will need to have a way to retreat without losing face. If that person gets cornered, they will do whatever it takes to not lose face and that includes lying. In fact, lying is less of a moral problem than causing someone to lose face. So a Thai will lie to someone rather than cause them to lose face. In conflict, third parties are used to get the message over to the other person without direct interaction.
Kreng Jai– There is not really an adequate translation for this term in English though many people have translated it, “consideration.” It literally means “awe heart.” Kreng Jai is the Thai way of trying to consider others. It manifests itself in lying many times. For me, it has happened this way so much that I have a saying, “It’s not a lie, its a kreng jai”! When someone kreng jai’s, you may have to ask the same question to them three or more times before you get the truth. Sometimes you have to say, “speak straight-don’t kreng jai” in order for the truth to emerge. People will tell you what they think you want to hear versus what they really believe. This can cause problems for the missionary when he is trying to whether a person has true faith or not.
Modesty- Most Thai people are alot more conservative than most people might imagine. Public displays of affection like hugging, holding hands, and kissing are looked down upon. Thai movies and TV shows are much more modest than those in the West. Even soap operas show people getting close to a kiss, but never really following through! It’s such a contradiction when you realize that Thailand is known in the West for sex tourism. If you ever do see a Thai woman holding hands or showing affection in public, it is usually with a foreign man. You can still tell that they are uncomfortable most of the time. For the Thai woman, it’s not about the sex. Its about a higher cultural value, money! Money trumps morality. When it comes to showing skin, most Western tourists show much more than a Thai ever would. I know this may be hard for some to believe, but its true!
Whiteness: While most of the West values a nice tan, the Thais would rather stay as white as possible! Dark skin means that you are poorer or lower class because you have to work outside and be exposed to the sun. White skin means that your life is easier, you get to work inside, and probably have more money. Skin whitening creams are huge sellers here. When going outside Thais will wear long sleeves and cover any exposed skin. Not many people will wear shorts unless they are playing sports. When working outside, Thais will wrap everything up, even if its 104 degrees out! I used to not get this, but since I tried it out myself, I found that I actually stayed cooler this way!
Head and Feet: The head is considered sacred and should not be touched in a joking way like patting little kids on the head. The feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body and are never to be pointed at anyone. Westerners mess up most of the time when they sit cross legged and point the bottom of their foot at another person. This is considered an insult. Many Thais even separate clothes for washing by top half and bottom half.
These are just a few of the many aspects of Thai culture that are unique.
What intrigues you about some of these things?
If you have lived in Thailand or still do, what would you add?