Thai culture is a labyrinth – difficult to understand, but very easy to get wrong and commit a social faux pas. If you aren’t Thai you will never fully get it. For this reason, the Thais are generally quite forgiving of foreign visitors. However, there are somethings the Thais won’t excuse, and these are things which you need to be told as they aren’t part of Western standards of good etiquette. These are our top five:
1. RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
Thai society is hierarchical. Every part of social relations with other people is governed by their place within that hierarchy. To give you an example of this, the way you address people depends on their age relative to yours. For instance, if someone is older than you then you address them using the title of pee so John becomes ‘pee John’ if he is older. However, if John were younger then he becomes ‘nong John’ with nong being the title used for someone younger. This use of titles gets really elaborate within families. For a cousin their title changes depending upon whether their mum or dad (their aunt or uncle) is older or younger than your mum or dad. If the cousin is the child of the eldest of the group of siblings to which their mum or dad belongs then they have a higher status than the other cousin irrespective of whether they are themselves older or younger.
The word khun means something close to Mr. and is often used in a formal situation.
Complicated isn’t it? Don’t worry about the titles, but remember that if someone is older than you are expected to treat them with a modicum of respect. Being rude to the elderly is a big social faux pas, don’t do it in Thailand.
2. NEVER GET ANGRY
If you get angry you are said to have a ‘hot heart’ (jai rawn in Thai). Being said to have a hot heart is a big insult in Thailand, being calm (having a ‘cool heart’ or jai yen in Thai) is a virtue. If you get angry in Thailand it will get you nowhere. People will just get angry back at you and think you are stupid. If you need to complain, stay calm, make your point and you have a much better chance of getting the desired result.
The concept of ‘face’ is a difficult thing to describe. The better way to understand it is to define what ‘losing face’ means. This is when you are made to look stupid, or just wrong, especially in public. Keeping face is the most important thing in Thai culture and this is all about appearances. In practice what this means is never putting people on the spot by directly criticising people whether in private or in public. You can be critical but you must do it in a more subtle way.
To illustrate this point please let me give you a real life example. Foreigners working in Thailand generally don’t get the face thing straight away and it makes life managing people difficult for them. We know a certain head chef working in a top beach resort in Southern Thailand who would constantly berate his staff in front of their co-workers. The restaurant staff kept on resigning and the chef, who actually did a pretty good job of managing the restaurant, ending up getting the sack himself because of the staff retention problem. What he should have done is to have taken the staff to one-side and have told them that what they were doing was great, but that he would have preferred them to do it in a different way. Message made and face intact. Everyone is a winner.
4. NEVER TOUCH A THAI PERSON ON THE HEAD
The head in Buddhist belief is the most sacred part of the body. Never touch a Thai person’s head, even in affection. The feet are the lowest, most unclean, part of the body. Avoid pointing your feet at people. Both these things can make them Thai people very upset.
5. NEVER DISRESPECT THE KING
Both a legal offense, and a big social faux pas – perhaps the biggest.
Foreigners generally have a problem understanding this one as in Western culture it is acceptable to criticise everyone and everything. However, when you start to look into Thai history this particular social norm actually makes a lot of sense.
Thailand has huge problems with both corruption and political instability. Governments come and go, and politicians and other public officials are generally perceived to use their position to steal from the people at large in one way or another. The Kings of Thailand have been seen by the Thai people as standing apart from this as symbols of stability, and honesty in public governance. The current King, for example, supports a great many worthy social programmes and has publicly supported democracy throughout the turbulent periods of his reign. The King is a source of hope for Thai people in a country where many other public officials fall short, and this is why the people love him.