5 Things You Should Know About Thai Culture

In order to cope with the intense and glorious situation that is traffic, tourists and construction in my little world, I’ve been using the analogy of a “fish in water”.  I keep telling myself that I am a fish in water, a fish swimming and gliding, and it helps me because otherwise I think I would go “ape shit” over the stressful situation of driving a motorbike.

It used to be A LOT tamer. Sure, there were accidents and stupidity but more people mean more accidents and stupidity. Which brings me to the 5 things expats and tourists need to remember about Thai culture.

1. Traffic – just about anything goes. But there are rules, abet loose ones. The largest vehicle on the road has the right of way, so pedestrians have the least.  It is also the responsibility of the person behind you to pay attention. This is why you see so many Thais merging into traffic without looking. I feel like I’ve written a lot about driving a motorbike in Thailand, so I don’t want to get into any more redundancy but I think if you remember: it’s fun and it’s fatal, have at it.

around-the-moat

2. Face to face.  While Thailand is rapidly changing, it has been my experience that business is best done face to face or in person. Thais ignore phone calls and especially emails. And even if you are working with the younger generation, there are still the cultural nuances that make phone calls and emails very challenging. Thais also respond better when you are with them. And actually I don’t know if this is exactly exclusive to Thais, as Yahoo’s CEO has just banned telecommuting. There is something to be said about talking with another person – you know, communicating.

3. Saving face is the big one Westerners think of when they think of Thai culture, and for good reason. It’s your other “currency” in Thailand. I’m not sure how the Chinese are faring, as they are here in droves and by nature, aggressive.

I told my friends the other day, that Thais seem very tolerant of different religions, as the topic came up. Dtum explained that Thais will not show irritation or anger towards missionaries even if they were, hence the appearance of tolerance.

So a smile doesn’t always mean a smile. And you should put more clothes on.

4. Karma, karma, karma.  I think many people come to Thailand and are shocked at the lack of care for animals, aka soi dogs and maybe even the poverty. It’s not uncommon to see dogs in atrocious states of disease and sickness, and people without limbs begging on the streets. I remember asking my mom about this. I mean, this seemingly lack of care and compassion feels highly ironic in a Buddhist society, but my mom explained many people believe whatever state an animal or person is in, is their karma.

This also leads me into the idea or thought that permeates Thai culture of being very NOW oriented. I’ll let you, dear readers, cogitate on that one.

5. Family. The family structure and importance of family in Thai society reminded me of the same emphasis placed in Latino culture. I went from living in Thailand to living in Ecuador, and I was struck by these kinds of similarities; you know, kind of like, the more you go out into the world, the more the world looks the same.

My grandfather (R) and his brother.
My grandfather (R) and his brother (L).

“Family” floods the Thai language. When I was growing up in Hawaii, my mom told me to refer to her friends as ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’ – this was a direct translation from Thai to English. And it took me a long time to recognize this is very Thai. When you are a kid, you don’t really question these things. Generally, you just do what you are told.

My mom raised my brother and me “Thai” without teaching us the language. I knew about not touching an adult’s head, crouching when walking by other people, having respect for elders, keeping my feet away from other people, temple etiquette and the like. I knew how important family was. This was drummed into my pliable mind as I greatly feared bringing any shame to my mom.

All this to say, even to someone as American as me, family is still important…

(Just occurred to me how much I could write about this…hmmm. Possible future post.)

4 thoughts on “5 Things You Should Know About Thai Culture

  1. On the karma thing. I like it better when Thais are trying to improve their karma than when anyone’s bad luck becomes rhetorically deserved = blaming the victim. If something terrible happens to an innocent child, for example, he or she must have done some bad stuff in a past life to deserve it. I don’t need to give vivid examples, just let your mind wander on the dark fate of some children in SE Asia for a moment and pick your own example. The imaginary children in question would have had to have been wicked monsters in their prior lives to deserve their “fate” in this one. Meanwhile the spoiled children of the rich must have been darling angels to deserve their comfort in this life.

    Much as I like Buddhism, sometimes I think good old fashioned “humanism” is the ticket: treating people well and fairly because it is the right and logical thing to do, without any recourse to divinity. But I’ll take Buddhism over predatory capitalism (unbridled greed is the highest good) any day.

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    1. Yeah, it’s disconcerting to hear about this aspect of Buddhism. Perhaps it is a watered down version of it. I’d be curious to see anything along this “karma” line of belief directly quoted from the Buddha.

      I certainly haven’t been raised to believe this, despite my mother. I knew when she was being racist anyway, to just laugh it off. Actually my brother and I both did this. So interesting what we absorb and what we decide at quite a young age, is bul-loney.

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  2. You’re so right about the traffic…and the saving face. I have been in cars/pick ups driven by Thais and in the privacy of their own vehicle they don’t hesitate to say what they’re thinking about the chaos unfolding on the road in front of them. However, wind down their window and share their thoughts…never!

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    1. There is a lot more road rage, maybe you noticed it too when you were hear last. The Chinese tourists add another element as they are typically more aggressive drivers. Bangkok drivers too. Just noticing a lot more honking, ‘playing chicken’ etc. Really just hating it! Walking more!!!!

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