Thursday, February 01, 2007

Business the Thai way

For many people, the big decision to move to Thailand is not made with a realistic expectation of what the future will bring. For my part, I thought that every day would be filled with sunny haze, polite students and ever smiling Thai colleagues with whom I would work in perfect harmony. Of course, this was not to be. I jumped a few hoops and sailed a few learning curves on my way to peaceful co-operation with my colleagues. Let me share a few of those experiences accompanied by a few other pointers.

One thing that's important to bear in mind from the offset is that , as a developing country, there is more than one mainstream psyche to the Thai business. To generalise greatly, I will split the Thai system of thought into two sections. The first is the 'old school' system. These include government institutions such as state schools, state banks, the police force and so on. These institutions are ubiquitous. The second is the commercial sector. This could be said to include the commercial banks (of course) , television and computer companies, private schools and more. Most of the following comments will apply to Thai culture which is prevalent in both sectors but commercial institutions can be more aware and understanding of foreign culture which can be helpful in resolving misunderstandings and tribulations.

Respect is crucial. That might sound glaringly obvious but it's also important to appreciate that methods of showing respect can be different in Thailand. The "Wai" is a famous cultural embelem, but many farangs don't understand that there are different kinds of wai. The greater the rank of the person you wai, the lower the head should bow. Thais are generally forgiving about westerners' wais and will appreciate the effort and the sentiment even if the wai itself is technically incorrect.

Wais should be offered to anyone older than you and anybody ranked above you at work. It's crucial to do this on a first meeting and probably thereafter until it becomes obvious that it's not necessary (I still wai my parents in law every time I see them). As a rule, children who wai you should not be waid back. A foreigner once said to me: "I always wai them back, why should I belittle them?". What she didn't understand was that returning a wai to a young child is so unusual that it runs the risk of embarrassing that child or making them uncomfortable. As a rule of the thumb, it's best to "go with the flow" when waing others rather than designing your own rules.

Other forms of respect involve use of language. It's important to use "khrap" for males and "ka" for women at the end of sentences, especially at the beginning of a conversation. There are other polite markers and terms to use. Thais are big on bestowing titles on people; "doctor" "teacher" "captain" and so on are often used in place of names.

Saving face:

Again it's a well known rule that Asians place value on the concept of keeping face. Whilst being a widely appreciated concept, it can sometimes manifest itself in ways that we foreigners can find hard to recognise and as such, can become angered over. As one example of this, a fellow teacher once arrived at work to be told she was late for her lesson. She replied that she wasn't late, her first lesson started in one hour. It turned out that she had been allocated an extra period by a senior teacher ("ajarn yai") but the senior teacher had forgotten to inform the girl. The girl immediately shouted across the room "I wasn't told about the lesson" The senior teacher replied "OK You have time, you can go now" The girl again complained that she wasn't told about it, and the teacher repeated her statement before walking out of the room.

In the eyes of the foreign teacher, she was not receiving an apology for a mistake that had placed her in hot water. What she didn't realise was that by discussing the senior teacher's error in the presence of others, she was causing her to lose face. Such a problem would have been far better to discuss in private.

This is perhaps the area with the most confusion, dealing with mistakes. Thais will occasionally allow a document, a public announcement or almost anything else to go out with errors or mistakes if they believe that such corrections would cause a loss of face to someone. Westerners often snigger or criticise such actions, often for the purpose of boosting their own fragile ego that they can see mistakes that other's can't. This may occasionally be the case but often it's simply a matter of the locals saving face for somebody.

Confrontation, dealing with problems and complaints

If I'm being honest, this is the area where I've had the most trouble adapting, and still suffer the occasional flare up.

Thais dislike confrontation of any nature. This partly because it leads to the danger of losing face (see above) but also as it generally goes against their nature and makes them feel uncomfortable. I could offer numerous examples of this, but one springs to mind:

My house is the end of a beautiful, newly built village. As our house is the final house, a large area of farmland lies to the south of it. Across that farmland is a village for the farm workers. Last week, I noticed music blaring out from across the farm so loud that I could hear it like it was playing in my own living room. I ignored it for a long time. By the time the sun had set, I was feeling a little aggrieved at the non stop barrage of dance music and bass that was now so loud it was causing my house to shake (If it had been quality rock music like Korn, Nirvana or Guns N Roses it would have been OK!). At bedtime it was still going. My wife reacted in the customary Thai way, she simply pulled a pillow over her head and tried to ignore it. I did the same but the music was getting louder and had now been played for over seven hours. At midnight I looked out of my window and I could see other homeowners with their lights on looking out of windows trying to see where the music was coming from. At one-thirty am , with my baby son unable to sleep, my wife finally succumbed to my granddad like moaning and called the police. The music stopped within twenty minutes.

What was significant about this was that one person who decided that it would be great to hold his own disco marathon in the middle of two villages was causing discomfort for well over five hundred people. We were the only ones to complain. The others had all resorted to the Thai characteristic of simply trying to ignore it and showing the Buddhist traits of calmness and tolerance. The idea of confrontation was very hard for them to fathom.

Incidentally, I checked with my wife that it was not some village party or another cultural event as this would have made it easier for me to understand. Her reply was "No it's probably someone who has bought a new stereo and wants to show it to people".

So given this gentle nature of avoiding conundrums, how do the locals deal with problems or disagreements in the workplace? Well, often they don't. Part of the reason that some farangs get away with offensive or vulgar behavior in Thailand is due to the Thai tolerance (and also the fact that many Thais don't understand what is being said or done). However, that's not to say Thais don't have their own methods of dealing with trouble.

One system is to use an intermediary. Remember I mentioned before that age is a big factor of rank in Thailand. When faced with a problem between a young person and a senior, the custom is to use someone nearer to the young person's age to act as a 'go between' or a messenger of the problem. The "go between" will either state directly the message they are carrying or they will simply discuss and deal with the problem themselves.

There are many examples of this happening in any school. For example, a teacher who arrives late and is noticed by a senior teacher is likely to be spoken to by a younger teacher who is close to the ajarn yai.

Sackings and firings are rare events here. Anyone who is close to being "fired" for any reason is simply transferred. In prominent positions the term is "transferred to an inactive post" such as the army generals who were deemed to be close to Thaksin Shiniwat, for example. In lesser jobs the individual could simply be nudged to a position that is untenable. I recall last year one teacher was transferred to my school by another school in our chain. His previous workplace was close to his home while our school was very, very far for him. It quickly transpired that he had had clashes with the manager. Despite his length of stay in Thailand, he didn't seem to understand what was happening. He would complain that he had been told 'There's no work for you here' despite the fact that he had been doing the same job for five years and the school was short of teachers. I was tempted to point out to him what was happening but I figured it was better to keep out. Eventually, he seemed to get the message and found a different job.


The Thais can be very subtle with their abuse i.e. talking to or about someone they don’t like. Foreigners, even those who speak Thai, can be caught out by these little ploys. I don’t know all the words or the tricks, partly because my Thai is poor anyway but partly because, once I stopped to think, I figured that I didn’t need to know. If someone wants to put one over on me by using subtle little changes of tone or ’sound alike’ words then good for them. I have better things to worry about. Speaking of subtle tricks….


Ahhh, the famous Thai smile. It’s real. Young people in particular can dazzle with their beautiful and innocent smiles. Like anywhere else, well meaning people who cannot communicate with you in other ways will offer a smile and love to receive one back.

That’s the tourist promoted smile and it is everywhere (just like on the left here!). However, there are many other forms of smiling. Smiling to cover embarrassment, smiling to deliver bad news, smiling to convey a strong dislike.

“Strong dislike”? No that’s no an oxymoron, and it’s a fact that Thais have their own phrase for this. Its called “Kee maa” (dog crap) smile. This smile is formed by pulling the lips tightly together and almost dragging them across the face, the kind of face you’d make if you stepped in dog poo.

The last time I saw this smile was in my last day at my old school. A teacher that had a particular dislike for me (the same teacher that enjoyed hitting kids) saw me coming out of the school immediately after I had signed in. Unable to take any other action – we had already made eye contact – she gave me a nice, tight full faced “kee maa” smile. Maybe she thought she was being smart. I lost no sleep.

For my part, I don’t worry about the kee maa smiles or even let on that I know what they are. I just ignore them and return the genuine smiles. They make such a difference to my day.

Marriage and dowry

This is probably the area that causes the most problems. I was very lucky here, my wife came from a wealthy and very easy going family and I was never asked for a dowry (that's a little more personal than I usually get on here and I won't discuss my private life any further, I will talk generically). In Thailand, the concept of living is that the male will provide for his wife. It is a symbol of his love and commitment that he will provide and provide very well. What some westerners would perceive as greed or materialism, the Thai would recognise as a sign of showing love and care.

From my experience of other's problems, there seems to be two areas of confusion. The first is with the dowry and support for the wife's family. It's a sad fact that many marriages end or become stormy because the farang believes the spouse's family are being covetous or just asking too much. However, the fact is that when living in Thailand it's important to at least understand Thai customs, and Thai customs state that in marriage, the richer family should provide support for a poorer family. It just so happens that many foreign men marry a woman from a poorer family.

The second area of confusion is that there are greedy woman and families here. There are many, many good Thai men and woman but also like any country there are some greedy ones who will try and screw every last penny out of the foreigner.

I guess it's down to each individual to decide if their spouse is honest and wants their partner to simply follow culture, or if they are being plain greedy. Considering the environment where you met is one consideration that is often overlooked. It's not something I have extensive knowledge on. Stickmaninbangkok has a very interesting selection of letters on this kind of topic.

So that's a few pointers. I'm certainly not pretending I'm a cultural guru. On the contrary, I still have problems and rare losses of temper even when I know the problem at hand is cultural. Once the novelty of living here has worn off, it can be difficult to contain natural western characteristics with attitudes like "If you've got a problem, tell me face to face" or "Why the hell is nobody complaining about that idiot?" and so on. However, after making a few mistakes and mellowing a little, I can roll with it a lot better than I used to. It helps.

I'd still love to smash that dance disco guy's stereo over his head, though.


Two more explosions happened in Bangkok yesterday. Nobody was hurt.

Fellow (but more experienced) blogger and occasional debate opponent Bangkok Pundit has posted a very interesting analysis of the New Year bombings and for my money, paints an interesting argument for the suggestion that squabbling factions of the army did it. I often disagree vehemently with BP's politics but his blog is very well maintained and if you read his post, the arguments against TRT or Muslim insurgent involvement are compelling.



Prakit said...

Just thought I might pass on one good tip to foreign businessmen. Never schedule any serious negotiation with Thai businessmen in the afternoon past lunch hour or you'll find yourselves at very serious disadvantage.

One devious trick common among Thais is to gorge themselves with very spicy lunch specifically for serious negotiations with farangs. In a small room with lots of happilly lunch-filled Thais, the farangs will squirm to complete the negotiations as quickly as they can if only to avoid faint from the overwhelming aroma of burped spicy food during energetic negotiations.

Ahoj said...

Hi there,

Sometimes, pictures teach more than words. Looking forward to some updates on Thai business culture.

In the meantime, have a look on my thoughts on the teacher's role in Thailand:

Let me know what you think about it.