The Thais That Bind

by Kenneth Champeon, Oct 22, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

I've lived in Thailand for long enough that occasionally I'll take a look around me and think, "Dear God! I'm in a foreign country! These people look nothing like me! I can't understand what they're saying half the time, and their values are completely different!" Sometimes such thoughts arise spontaneously; at other times they come when I have just finished watching a Hollywood film, or remained inside all day, or talked to friends from home. Or maybe the Thais say or do something that, though familiar, still throws me off balance. Like when my maid suddenly ducks her head down as a sign of respect when she's passing me, or when my girlfriend tells me that I pay all my bills in person and in cash in order to preserve face-to-face interactions between people, despite the glaring inefficiency implied. I once watched a former employer of mine telling some Thai students that if person A has a problem with person B, A should tell B, not C. The Thais listened politely but I doubt that the lecture had much impact. To them, indirection is the name of the game.

In general I have avoided books trying to explain Thai behavior to foreigners, instead preferring to make my own conclusions based on experience. But only after reading Working with the Thais by Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtavy do I have plausible answers to some nagging questions. For example, why can such an otherwise gentle and non-confrontational people be such aggressive drivers? How can they be so compassionate in certain circumstances and so callous in others? And why do English-speaking Thais in the company of an English-speaking foreigner nevertheless insist on speaking Thai?

The authors argue that the answers to the first two questions depend upon what they call the three circles of Thai social interactions: the Family, Cautious, and Selfish Circles respectively. Basically the list proceeds in ascending order of indifference. The guy cutting you off on the road, or cutting in front of you in a queue, calculates that he will probably never encounter you again and can therefore afford to be assertive. But Thais depend so thoroughly on their more immediate contacts that with them far more delicacy is demanded. This also explains why the notion of civic duty - including volunteerism, charity, activism, and political action -- remains rather subdued. The Golden Rule and the equality of mankind are ideas found in Thailand as well, but perhaps not to the same extent as in the West.

For Thailand remains a highly hierarchical society, which in turn explains (according to the authors) why Thais speak Thai even when this would be construed as rudeness. Unfortunately English, the world's dominant second language, seems to be one of the few Western languages that has no separation between formal and familiar second-person pronouns. "You" applies to everyone. But Thai has several second-person pronouns determined by the intimacy or the relative social status of the speakers. For a Thai to use "you" indiscriminately would be inconsiderate and discomfiting. To that extent, the two languages are incommensurable.

The authors also dedicate quite a lot of space to the Thai concept of kreng jai, which they define as "an attitude whereby an individual tries to restrain his own interest or desire, in situations where there is the potential for discomfort or conflict, and where there is a need to maintain a pleasant and cooperative relationship." This is a mouthful, indeed, but it's the best definition I've heard. The third clause is critical, too, because it allows for the aggression mentioned earlier. But most important is the avoidance of conflict, which can be acutely aggravating to a teacher, businessman, or diplomat - anyone who requires a certain amount of conflict to be effective. (What remains unclear is why Thais fear conflict so much.)

In certain respects, Thais and Americans share a lot. They both value freedom, they are both nationalistic, they aren't ashamed of their materialism. But in other respects they couldn't be more different. The authors cite a study ranking 53 countries with regard to the importance they attach to individualism versus collectivism. The USA ranked first; Thailand ranked forty-first. The stat speaks volumes. So, if a Thai sees a Westerner eating by himself the Thai is likely to feel pity or unease, whereas when an American sees seven or eight Thai guys dressed exactly alike and walking in a big clump he may feel something like revulsion or contempt. And the feelings are as easily explained as the behaviors; we were just brought up that way, and each has their advantages. It all depends on what you value more - liberty or security.

Much of Working with the Thais concerns itself with the ways in which Thailand has assimilated (or not assimilated) Western values and business practices. In general, Thais make less of a separation between work and life than do Westerners, so the informal hierarchies of Thai society sometimes confound the formal hierarchies of a Western corporation. To put it simply, Thais tend to run companies as if they were families, and not just in the touchy-feely sense that Western companies promote. And insofar as families are authoritarian institutions, Thais tolerate and indeed expect a greater degree of authoritarianism in the workplace. This extends to the country as a whole. Thailand has adopted all the trappings of representative government, but in practice the country seems to embrace one-party (if not one-man) rule, provided that the rule is good. In a sense this goes back to the distaste for conflict.

The half-Thai protagonist of John Burdett's novel Bangkok 8 tells an American that it's a "mistake" to make Thais mad. This was partly meant as a joke, but I would add that it's certainly a mistake to make Thais really mad. A Thai in Working confesses that when he gets mad he gets "very quiet", and I think he can be taken as representative. This of course is generally the opposite of what Westerners do. And again, both methods of coping with anger have their rationales. The Thais see the suppression of anger as a sign of self-control, whereas Westerners see it as insincere and likely to lead to something far worse than a bit of muttering and carrying on - like, say, homicide or substance abuse. The authors also suggest that when Westerners get angry about a situation, a Thai in their presence is likely to take this personally. About bad situations, a Thai is more likely (in my experience) to feel a kind of resigned disappointment; but anger, if the thing can't be helped, would probably strike them as pointless and irrational. (When the dearly beloved brother of a Thai acquaintance of mine was killed in a car crash, she took the news simply by shaking her head, pouting, and saying, "Tsk, tsk." And then there is the renowned stoicism of Bangkok's taxi drivers, who can sit in traffic for hours with hardly a peep of complaint.)

Although Working could benefit from a better layout, and contains the occasional amateurish error ("discrete" when "discreet" was meant, for example), there's a lot here for anyone encountering problems understanding the Thais. We learn that pointing with one's feet is impolite (as, I should add, is pointing at people with one's fingers), that "urban Thais tackle tasks more in bursts than as a steady stream", and that one explanation for the confusion felt by many Thais is that their country's GNP per capita virtually doubled in the years 1985-1990. (If my math is right, this entails about a 15% annual growth rate.) So when I realize on occasion that I am living in a foreign country, I'm sure some of the Thais - especially the older ones - must look around at the skyscrapers standing on former farmland and feel much the same way.

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Review of Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtavy's Working with the Thais, White Lotus, 1995.

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