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10+ Things you need to know about Thai people and Thai culture

Last edited: June 06, 2014 at 18:55:17

Modern Thai society is a mixture of traditions from the past and modern day influences, such as internet, smartphones and easy-to-get money. Young people nowadays act mostly out of a combination of fashion and what their parents have taught them. While some older people still treasure old values that you may be able to familiarize yourself with, young Thai people nowadays have ways of thinking which could be far more distant from anything you're used to.

If you're staying in Thailand, it's handy to know a few essential things about Thai people and Thai culture. It can help you to understand Thai people better and to avoid problems or to get the outcome you desire out of an interaction or even a business deal, instead of being surprised.

Thai people may deny that some of the things in this list are true. If they do, most likely it's because of item no.1 in the list.


1. Thai people are:  to face an unpleasant truth

While Western culture is relatively confrontational, competitive and transparent, Thai culture is more focussed on harboring peace and harmony and avoiding anyone to loose face. If you confront a Thai with a hard and uncomfortable fact, judge the person or make harsh remarks about a (lack of) performance, chances are that the person either smiles, says 'maipenrai' or simply walks away.

Most Thai need to be gently and positively suggested of the good side of the coin with regard to a bad thing or of a positve way of improvement, in order to keep them aboard or to stay friends.

2. A promise is only an intention which is justified to be altered by the use excuses

Whenever Thai people make a promise or an appointment, don't fully rely on it because chances are that the plan will be altered. Often, there will be some excuse (kho aang ข้ออ้าง) that lead to the Thai person not being able to fulfill the promise or simply to show up. The range of excuses is sheer endless, Thai people will use whatever excuse they can to sooth the pain of the broken promise or appointment.
Most of the time, the excuses are not true.
Reasons why this cycle of making a promise or plan and altering it happens again and again, could be that:
- the person never wanted to show up or keep the promise in the first place, but just said so because it's harder and too confrontational or considered too impolite to say 'no';
- the person went for something else, that would give more short term benefit;
- the person changed her/his mind.

This kind of behaviour and cultural patterns explain why some Thai people often cancel or break their promise. Interestingly, they expect you to do the same, and won't be too insulted if you can't make it, even last minute, with some lame excuse. It's a way of life.

3. The relativity of truth and the ease of a lying

Although lying is forbidden according to one of the Five Buddhist Precepts, it is at the order of the day in Thailand for nearly everybody: most Thai people lie on a daily basis or are used to being lied to every day.
Lying happens out of convenience and because it's considered better than making someone else (or yourself) loose face. Interestingly, many Thai people themselves aren't much aware anymore of what is true and what is a lie, as they are bending the truth constantly with exceptions and excuses to their own benefit.
In a way, this is Thai style: living and acting without strict principles, instead being flexible to the truth which is forever 'bendable'.
White lies are very common too in Thailand and often not considered lies.
Of course, there are noticable exceptions of very honest people, but the truth (without hard statistics) is that the density of lies in Thailand is probably higher than in most countries you've been to, although perhaps similar to other developing countries where truth has to give in to survival and benefit.

4. Thailand is still a class society

Although Thailand doesn't have a real caste system such as in India, traditional Thai society definitely consisted of different classes living in very different conditions, and nowadays roughly 3 social classes remain: the very poor, the middle class, and the very rich.
Most likely, you've met people from the first two classes, but spontaneous meetings with the very high-so are more rare.
The separation between the three classes is quite distinct and in fact, is at the roots of the political conflict in this country.
The very poor are simply workers forever, live in basic houses, sometimes made out of board. An entire family may live off less than THB 10,000 a month.
The middle class comprises of a wide range of people from teachers to normal white collar workers and businessmen (as such, the word 'middle class' is perhaps not applied in the same way as in other countries, where it often refers to a class of entrepreneurs). This is the largest group and they seem less politically coloured.
The very rich or the high-society are beyond anything you can imagine in a normal civilization. They may own many houses, resorts, and entire business conglomerates. This class consists of elite families that has existed for a long time, newcomers and the military.
The old elite families have roots that trace a long way into the past, some of them were nobles.
A good example of a new wealth gainer is ousted ex prime minister Thaksin, of course.
And finally, other big players behind the scene are people are the military, that holds major business interests in this country.
The high society are well 'elevated' above the majority of people in this country, consider themselves a separate class and play by their rules.
Some in power or business are able to gather in a single (corrupt) deal thousands of rai of land, others accumulate wealth within one generation that in normal circumstances would be impossible to achieve.

As a result of this class society and Buddhist (karmic) beliefs, there is a certain complacency about being born in a certain class, an 'acceptance of fate' or a re-affirmation of your destiny, like: 'I'm born poor, so I have no chance to be rich', or 'I'm high-so, I'm above these kind of people'.

5. Thailand has about the highest Facebook density in the world and most youngsters are addicted to their smartphone

One recent social phenomenon that, interestingly, could be a binding factor between the three social classes is the internet and the use of smartphones. Nowadays, literally every single Thai, no matter what class, can afford a smartphone, new or second hand, by cash or by installment. As a consequence Facebook alledgedly records its highest user density in the world in Bangkok.
Make-pictures-before-you-eat to upload on your page has become standard procedure (rather than the old fashioned 'wash your hands before you eat'), eating 'beautiful-looking-food' has become more important than real taste, and talking to your companions next to you has become less interesting than playing with your smartphone and texting them through there.
Thai youngsters have definitely become addicted to their smartphone and you can either suffer or benefit from it, depending on your approach.

6. A thousand baht now is better than two thousand baht tomorrow

Thai people's horizon is very short: all happens today. Some foreigners confuse this for 'living in the now', but that's a complete misunderstanding of this spiritual concept.
If you offer a freelance worker a thousand baht today, or you promise him to get double the amount tomorrow, chances are that he'll take the cash today. There is very little trust in promises or contracts even in the near future because anything can happen that diverts the promise or plan to occur as someone promised it would.
In addition, there is very little loyalty and very little value is attached to long term relationships, especially in business, so it's always more attractive for Thai workers and business to take as much advantage as possible now.

7. Much of Buddhism has been reduced to a set of conventions, the temple is as much a social as a spiritual place and many go there to make merit

Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist society. There are more temples than you can imagine and in Chiang Mai only there are already several hundreds of them. However, much of what the Buddha has taught has been lost in social conventions and belief systems, like in most other world religions.
In Thailand, besides being a spiritual institution, temples nowadays have important social functions and monks go out to perform all kinds of social duties. Although most people are officially Buddhist, many Thai don't really know anymore what that is about, what Buddhist spirituality means. People are taught the official 5 Buddhist precepts (some even tatoo them on their body) but most of them don't live according to them: 1. abstain from killing animals (and humans) 2. from stealing 3. avoid sexual misconduct 4. abstain from false speech 5. from drinking.
Thai people who go on a Vippassana meditation in a temple come back saying they found out how much they should respect their parents (which is almost a Confucian concept) and has very little to do with the true meaning of meditation.

If you stay long enough, a Thai friend may invite you to go to the temple, which is kind of an act of friendship and sometimes could even be considered romantic. Indeed, many Thai people go to the temple 'to make merit', on their birthday or on a special day, or perhaps to cleanse their sins, only to go back to a sinful life after that.

Buddhist tattoos on a 'blue collar' worker

8. Corruption is bad, unless you can benefit from it

When asked individually, all Thai people condemn corruption and fingerpoint to the big guys in politics and government who are alledgedly abusing the system and getting a lot of money out of it. However, when it comes to their own benefit, most Thai people accept to use the system and to corrupt people and institutions in order to get the thing they need: jumping a queu in a government procedure, getting a contract etc.
Corruption has its roots within the people and it will never waver in Thailand in the next 100 years, because nearly no one refuses to use it.
Corruption does great harm to Thailand, its facilities level, and aggravates the division between poor and rich.

9. Love = taking care

While foreigners tend to believe in a more liberal concept of love, some even in unconditional love, a practical meaning of love in Thailand is: taking care. One shows love by taking care, and usually it's the guy who has got to show it more than the girl, so the man as a (financial) provider is more important than in western societies. You proof your love for a Thai girl, if you take care of her, her family, her sick uncle in the hospital and some more.
Thai people are drilled from youth in respecting their parents and, when poor, actually already indebted when born, because the parents have to go through terrible hardships to raise the kid and when the kid is a grown up, it has to take care of the parents. This is not much different from family relationships in other poor or developing countries without a proper social welfare system.

10. Group behaviour, everything is flexible yet thinking is black-and-white

A distinct difference between Thai and farang way of life, is that Thai don't work according to fixed rules and principles, but instead always adapt to the group, a change of plan or a new reality. You can see this very clearly in traffic, where everyone is slowly adjusting to everybody else, no matter if someone breaks the traffic rules. Traffic flows as a group and the individual is adjusting to it.
Westerners, to the contrary, work according to fixed rules, plans and organisation. In traffic, one trusts other people to stick to the rules, that's why you can drive faster in the west than here.

Paradoxically though, although being flexible and tolerant in a passive way, many Thai people are black-and-white thinkers without eye for subtle grades of reality. Thai girls tend to think in terms of 'bad guys' versus 'good guys', often aggrevated by the appalling news of guys hassling girls and stereotype soap series. Vegetarian food is considered 'good' and drinking is considered 'bad' but nearly everyone indulges in these vices.
Going to the temple is good, and certain habits are bad.

So, paradoxically, Westerners act a bit more rigid according to rules and principles, but are more trained to see different shades of reality.

11. Thai and Money: it doesn't matter where it came from, what matters is that you have it

Many Thai people dream of being rich, because money brings comfort and comfort is almost the equivalent of being 'sabai'. The question of what work you do or how you got your money is not considered so important. This question is probably not often asked when a prostitute goes back to her village with a brandnew car, what matters is that she did well and if asked, she'll have a legimate answer ready.
Likewise, politicians and people in power are able to enrich themselves without much questions being asked as to where all the money came from.

12. 'Maipenrai' embodies the essence of the Thai way of life

What's the most useful word in Thai? Probably it's 'thank you' (khob khun krab/kha ขอบคุณครับ/ค่ะ) or how are you? (sabai dee mai สบายดีไหม?) or never mind (maipenrai ไม่เป็นไร). Of these three, maipenrai is the most difficult to understand, which is used in many different situations and can be easily misunderstood by foreigners and even be interpreted as insulting.
Often simply translated as 'never mind', it can mean many more different things, such as: it's not important, let's not make it serious, I'm sorry, etc.
Don't be surprised if a shop owner responds to your complaint with 'maipenrai'!
If one can summarize the essense of Japanese culture by the phrases 'excuse me' and 'thank you', and the essence of Chinese culture by 'have you eaten' and 'make money', the essence of Thai culture would lie more into the phrase 'maipenrai' and 'sabai dee mai?'.


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