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Understanding Thai Values and Culture – Part 1 (Published in AustCham, February 2006)

A two part article by Khun Sunee Sathaporn, Published in “Advance”, a monthly publication of the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce (AustCham Thailand).

The best months for traveling are December, January, and February, but November, March and April are also acceptable (though the air is humid and it may rain occasionally).

1. Introduction: Peeling the layers of an onion

For foreigners looking to do business in Thailand - be it with your potential Thai joint-venture partner, your Thai trading partners, your Thai colleague or Thai employee - questions you may be pondering are: Who am I working with? What are Thai people like? How should I interact with Thai people? All these thoughts lead to two questions: “What are Thai values and culture?” “What influences Thai thinking, perspective and behaviour?”

If you try to search for the answers on the internet using the search item “Culture Thailand”, it will lead you to numerous websites that discuss inbound tourism to Thailand. The links will take you to places to visit, hotels, transport, various festivals, traditional dance, music, arts, handicrafts, where to shop, where to eat, where to enjoy yourself - basically, everything you can see and buy in Thailand, but very little about Thai people.

The websites will help you with the tip of the iceberg, or I’d rather call it the outer layer of an onion. Outwardly, business seems easy. The dress code is very western. The greeting of a handshake is welcomed. The buildings are high rise with modern offices. Many people are fluent in the English language. The famous Thai smile which earns Thailand the reputation of “the land of smiles”. All this may give you an impression that the rules of interacting and business conduct will not be too different from your own. And there is the uniquely Thai “wai”, a gesture of paying respect by putting the palms of your hands together in the middle of your chest, with which the air hostess of Thai Airways greet you and farewell you on the way to Thailand. You may think to yourself that this is not too hard, and you could do the same. But as you observe longer, you may start to get confused, as you see Thai people wai not only other people, particularly monks and the Buddha image, they also wai various objects like the spirit house, the four faced Hindu god, and a tree with a colourful ribbon tied around it. Some of you who have had to travel to some fisher village in Thailand may have witnessed that fisherman and villagers also wai wooden carved penises of different sizes (some as tall as a man) on the beach.

When you move out of your comfortable hotel room in which you can watch CNN and the ABC and movies on demand around the clock, no matter if you walk the streets of Bangkok or travel by car, skytrain, or underground railway, the difference starts to hit you. You see traffic jams, and the children and adults selling garlands, flowers and other small items, or cleaning windscreen windows. You see the crowded footpaths, with everything on sale from mobile phone covers to grilled meat balls, with beggars in different shapes and forms sitting on the footpaths and wai-ing every passer-by in the hope of earning some coins for their meal. Alongside the high rise buildings and luxury hotels there may be shabby looking houses or slums.

Such is the reality of Thailand, where the two worlds of the rich and the poor exist side by side. Yet most Thais still manage to put on a smile and make you feel welcome no matter where you go. How do you explain that?

2. Economic factors

Population & GDP
The population of Thailand is around 65 million people, with around 11 million residing in Bangkok. 75% of the population are Thai, 14% are Chinese ethnic and the next largest ethnicity in Thailand are Muslims in the South. GDP growth rate was 6.2% in 2004. In 2005, the figure is expected to be around 5%. GDP per capita in 2004 was $US8,100 or around $A10,400 according to the CIA World Fact Book website.

Over $A10,000 per capita per year does not sound so bad in a country where you can buy a bowl of noodles on the street for $A1. But the daily wage for labourers in Thailand is around 165 Baht a day or just over $A5. Suppose a man works five days a week for the whole year, earning that much, his annual income would be around $A1,340. Let’s say the man’s food and drink costs him around $A3 a day, his meal expenses for a year would be around $A1,140 leaving him $A200 per year for housing, gas, electricity, transportation, wife, kids and to live.

Sector disparity
Out of 65 million people in Thailand, 36 million are in the labour force, and 49% of those are in the agricultural sector which produces less than 10% of GDP. According to the Bangkok Post website, Thai farmers earn about $A75 per month or around $A900 annually.

Industry or manufacturing engages 14% of the workforce, and they produce 44% of GDP, with the average monthly earning in this sector at $A190 per month or around $A2,280 annually.

White collars workers in Thailand are the highest income earners. In the financial sector, for example, a worker would earn around $A520 per month, with an annual income of around $A6,200.

For a bachelor degree graduate entering public service in Thailand, the starting salary equates to an annual income of $A3,200.

Yet, foreign observers would notice that there are many more Mercedes Benz cars on the streets of Bangkok than in their home city. Unlike Australia, where most drive themselves, many Thai entrepreneurs or companies provide company cars and drivers for executives.

Unlike the average mum and dad in Australia who are responsible for the parenting role, a lot of middle to upper class Thais have nannies for their children, and maids or servants to do all the household chores for them.
  3. Patron-client relationships

Walking behind the big man
The huge income gap between minority rich and the majority poor has sustained the class society in Thailand. But it is not just an income gap that classifies people into different groups. The values of Thai society also play a big part in cementing such a demarcation. Many western sociologists define Thai society as a “patron – client” relationship, ie the less powerful members of the society look to depend on the more powerful members of society.

We have a saying in Thai: “Walk behind the big man, and the dog won’t bite you.” Many expat executives are very happy working in Thailand, because Thai employees show them a great degree of respect, much more than they ever experience in their home country. A lot of manufacturing companies are particularly happy about their Thai workforce, especially women, who excel in detailed work, are obedient, hard working and loyal. On the other hand, expats also complain about the lack of initiative from the Thai staff, and the tendency to hide problems from the boss until it explodes in their face. This problem can be avoided by creating an organizational culture where all members are valued, where the employees are aware that management appreciates their ideas and suggestions.

Know your place – don’t poo like an elephant
A Thai proverb that is a good reflection of how Thais perceive people with different social and economic status is: ’See an elephant poo, don’t you poo like an elephant.’ An elephant is compared to the rich and powerful; it is a warning to people who aren’t rich or powerful not to imitate what the rich can do. The elephant in this case is equivalent to the tall poppy in the Australian culture. Thai people don’t have the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”; we do not cut down the tall poppies. Rather, the tall poppies are revered. It is a society’s norm to aspire to be a tall poppy, to be rich, to have a Mercedes Benz with a driver; to have a nanny and servants; to have all the good things that wealth can buy. When you have these things you can show your wealth and gain more respect and recognition.
4. Collectivism and a hierarchical society

One difference between Western and Eastern Culture is what sociologists term individualism versus collectivism. The Western way is generally more individualistic. This means the individual will advance him or herself socially and economically, thinking in a context of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘myself’. On the contrary, the Eastern or Thai way is more collectivist. Thais think in terms of ‘we’, maintaining relationships and pleasing other people. As a Thai saying goes: ”Don’t bruise the lotus, don’t stir the water”. Keeping all the frustration inside for the sake of harmony is important.

Face and Respect
‘Face’ and respect are very important in a collectivist society like Thailand. A child is born with the status pass down to him or her by the family. Thus, your family name is important because it can give an indication of your family position. Your family name indicates what you can achieve and provide because of your family network. However, social status in Thailand is fluid; you can attain face and respect with education and wealth. That is why a lot of middle class Thai families invest heavily in the education of their children. Most Thai students aspire to attain the highest degree that they can because this is a means of climbing the social ladder. Ordinary people who can’t afford a higher education or a well paid job have other means to attain face and respect. The quick fix for such aspirations is entering the lottery, and this explains why lotteries and gambling in various forms are popular, especially among the poor in Thailand.

How to show respect
Thailand is a hierarchical society and interaction between people is determined by status - whether you are equal, higher or lower status to other people. The means to impress your colleagues by showing respect the Thai way is by the wai, but make sure that you wai the person who is more senior to you in term of status. If you wai a person with a lower status you will embarrass them. If unsure, a handshake would be welcome. If your colleague is of equal status, age is the next criteria. You can initiate a wai to an older colleague. Thais are expected to wai a monk and an image of Buddha, especially when entering a temple. Other signs of respect are to remove shoes before entering a temple hall or a Thai house, and to observe the triple wai on the floor, which represents Thai respect for the Buddha, his teaching and the monks.
5. Animism and Buddhism

Animism: the good and the bad spirit
Showing respect by Thais does not end with humans. Respect extends beyond the realm of life to the spirit world. Thais believed in animism long before Buddhism arrived. Many Thais still believe in spirits, and there are good and bad spirits. Good spirits are protectors in situ, for example the spirit who protects the house, the forest, the river, and the sea. These are good spirits who can bring you luck and protect you if you accord the spirit its proper honour. To accord honour you offer food or garlands on appropriate occasions. During the famous Loy Kratong festival in November, people float a lotus shape filled with a candle, incense and some coins in a waterway. This festival originated in the belief that there is a spirit protecting the river, so humans need to apologise to the river or waterway for the pollution.

There are also bad spirits, especially people who die in an accident or have an unexpected death. This is comparable to when Australians put flowers at the site where a loved one had an accidental death. Thais may wrap a colourful cloth around a big tree where a person died by a car accident, and every time a driver passes that spot, they will wai the tree, thinking that because I show you proper respect, please spare my life.

Guidance spirits of the sea are pretty fierce. Some fishermen believe that the way to prevent the sea spirit taking the life of a fisherman for her own satisfaction is for villagers to offer her a wooden carved penis as a substitute.

Buddhism – reincarnation, karma and merit making
95% of Thais are Buddhist. According to Encarta Encyclopedia there are approximately 18,000 Buddhist temples and 140,000 Buddhist priests. Most Thai men before they get married will have been ordained as a monk for a short period, to gain merit for themselves and their parents.

Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Life is an endless circle of birth, death, and rebirth, and governed by the law of karma. Your present life is dictated by deeds that you have done in the past, either in this life or in a previous life. Your future and life after death will be dictated by what you are doing now. A person is born rich and famous because of the good deeds they did in the past life. A poor person has not done enough good deeds in their previous life. So it is wise to try to make as much merit in this life so that you can attain a better next life.

Merit making can be done in various ways, and the most effective way according to the Buddhist belief is through giving to the monks. You will see Thai people giving food to the monks in the morning. Thais also go to the temple to give food and other sustenance to the monks on special religious occasions or on their birthday.

The middle way – cool heart not hot heart
Buddhism also teaches ‘the middle way’ as a way of life that is to avoid extremity in either positive or negative emotion or behaviour. Displaying extreme emotions like anger in public is considered ill mannered. This is one aspect of Thai culture which expats need to observe when working with Thais. Don’t show your anger toward Thai employees in public. It will make them “lose face”. You will achieve more respect by having a one-on-one discussion with your employee and by maintaining a controlled temper.

The virtue of being patient is very important in the Thai psyche, and impatience is dubbed “hot heart”, or “jai ron” in Thai. Thais will warn each other to be “jai yen” or “cool heart”, to think twice and be patient.

The next section in this article will discuss the influence of the above Thai cultural mores on conducting business in Thailand.
Khun Sunee Sathaporn is Chief Executive Officer of the Victoria Thailand Business Network (VTBN) and Managing Director, Summit Thailand. She can be contacted at ssathaporn@optusnet.com.au