Thai culture

Thailand lies between Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos, with the Gulf of Thailand to its south. Its culture mixes strong Indian influences, Chinese traditions, and elements that are uniquely Thai. With its diverse geography, friendly people, and stunning scenery, the “Land of a Thousand Smiles” is a must-see destination in South East Asia.

Thailand is the 50th largest country in the world with an area roughly equal to that of France.  With rugged mountains in the north and world-famous tropical beaches in the south, it is a land of pristine beauty.

Thailand is separated into four distinct regions. Despite the overarching strength and unity of Thai culture, each region has its own unique cultural and geographic features.

Northern Thailand shares its border with Myanmar and Laos. This region is mountainous and filled with thick forests and river valleys. Its culture is heavily influenced by Burmese culture and it carries strong influences from the historical Lanna kingdom.

Northeastern Thailand, also known as Isan, is largely isolated from the rest of Thailand by a large mountain range. A Lao-speaking majority, as well as a primarily agricultural society, characterize this culturally distinct region.

Southern Thailand, located on the Malay peninsula, is home to many of Thailand’s pristine beaches and resorts.  With a more tropical climate, this narrow land mass is home to a many fishing communities.

It is the region of Central Thailand that is predominant, though. This region is the seat of Thailand’s modern-day capital city, Bangkok. With its fertile plains, it has also long been the economic center of the country, producing the majority of Thailand’s rice.  Central Thailand is also the area that has the greatest population density, and the greatest concentration of the ethnic Thai majority.  It is the political, economic, and cultural center of Thailand.

Cultural Identity

Much of Thailand’s culture comes from the ethnic Thai people.  One of the most important influences on Thai culture has been Buddhism. Many of the traditions and beliefs of the people in Thailand stem directly from Buddhist principles.  Hinduism has also made important contributions to Thai culture, and the close links between Thailand and India can be seen in art, literature, and in many Thai customs.  The cultures of nearby Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China have also played an important role in forming the traditions of Thailand, as have indigenous belief systems such as Animism.

Of Thailand’s nearly 70 million people, roughly two thirds are from Thai ethnic groups. Although the ethnic Thai people can be divided into dozens of different subgroups, their traditions, languages, and cultures differ only slightly. This leads to a population with a strong sense of shared traditions and cultural identity.

The remaining third of the population is made up primarily of Chinese, as well as various minorities including Vietnamese, Khmer, Hmong, and Mein. Even among these diverse ethnic groups, the Thai language is widely spoken and understood, and the Thai script is often used in place of traditional writing styles.

Since the 1950s, Thailand’s government has made efforts to preserve and strengthen the sense of national culture and national identity. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, Thailand saw a resurgence in local culture and traditions.  Although there is still a strong national identity, local food, dances, music, celebrations, and beliefs have begun to play a more important role in Thai life.

Values

Thai culture is deeply influenced by religion. With around 95% of the country being Theraveda Buddhist, the belief system and values of Buddhism play a huge role in day-to-day life. Throughout the country, the most important values that Thai people hold to are respect, self-control, and a non-confrontational attitude.  Losing face by showing anger or by telling a lie is a source of great shame for Thai people.

In general, displays of emotion in public are viewed in a very negative light.  No matter how frustrated or upset a person might feel, he or she will always strive to maintain a positive and friendly attitude, a sense of humor, and a smile.

Respect for elders and for those in higher social positions is also important. Hierarchies of social status characterize nearly every interaction. Children are expected to respect their parents and teachers. The young must show deference to the elderly.  Those with highly prestigious positions in society, such as doctors, important public figures, and monks are almost revered.

Family is central to Thai life.  Although many newly-married couples will set up their own households, it is not uncommon for extended family to live with them.  Often, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles will all live in the same household and help to raise children and provide for the family. Children are expected to show great respect for their parents, and they maintain close ties, even well into adulthood.

Although Thailand’s family life and society has been traditionally male-dominated, women are granted considerable respect. Recent laws and legislation have allowed women more freedom to move out of traditional roles and into professions such as politics, medicine, and business. Respect and equal rights for women has, in recent decades, become an important part of Thailand’s law and values.

Another concept that is very important in Thai culture is sanuk.  Sanuk is a wide-reaching idea that embodies the playfulness and sense of humor that is so central to life in Thailand. It could refer to a spontaneous and joyful meeting with someone on the street, or a humorous pun made at just the right moment. The sense of humor and joie de vivre captured in sanuk is central to the Thai way of life.

Social Customs and Etiquette in Thailand

  • The first name is usually preceded by the word ‘Khun’ (pronounced ‘Koon’) which is used as a blanket term to refer to Miss, Mrs or Mr – for example, Khun Mary or Khun Simon.
  • People of importance, such as teachers, professors or monks, the first name should be preceeded with ‘Ajarn’.
  • Surnames are reserved for very formal occasions or written documentation.
  • It is not uncommon for Thais to assign nicknames to each other.  

    Meeting and Greeting

  • The ‘wai’ is the traditional form of greeting, given by the person of lower status to the person of higher status.
  • The wai is the common form of greeting and adheres to strict rules of protocol.
  • Raising both hands, palms joined with the fingers pointing upwards as if in prayer, lightly touching the body somewhere between the chest and the forehead, is the standard form.
  • The wai is both a sign of respect as well as a greeting. Respect and courtesy are demonstrated by the height at which the hands are held and how low the head comes down to meet the thumbs of both hands.
  • The wai may be made while sitting, walking, or standing.
  • The person who is junior in age or status is the first one to offer the wai.
  • The senior person returns the wai, generally with their hands raised to somewhere around their chest.
  • If a junior person is standing and wants to wai a senior person who is seated, the junior person will stoop or bow their head while making the wai.
  • If there is a great social distance between two people, the wai will not be returned.
  • If invited to a Thai home, then allow your host and hostess to introduce you to the other guests. This enables other guests to understand your status relative to their own, and thus know who performs the wai and how low the head should be bowed

    Communication style

  • Close friends may be tactile with one another and it’s not unusual to see friends of the same sex often hold hands with one another.
  • Hand gestures may be used to enhance speech but it’s important that the actions are calm and never aggressive.
  • Thais are gentle people and are likely to be offended and upset by aggressive speech or mannerisms.
  • ‘Face’ is important to Thais and it is important that you do nothing to affect someone’s ‘face’ – if you need to say something of a critical nature then ensure that you do so in private
  • Thais are ‘indirect’ communicators and, as such are unlikely to directly say anything that may hurt or offend you. Instead, they may use vague responses or try to change the subject. Although this may appear to be indecisiveness on their part, efforts should be made to try and interpret their true feelings.
  • Personal Space - When speaking to strangers Thais maintain a distance barrier of approximately one meter.  This distance is lessened when speaking to close acquaintances. Although it is polite to retain eye contact during a conversation, it is expected that those in subordinate positions will bow their head during interactions with those of a revered rank in a demonstration of respect.

    Gift Giving

  • If invited to a Thai's home, a gift is not expected, although it will be appreciated.
  • Gifts should be wrapped attractively, since appearance matters. Bows and ribbons add to the sense of festivity.
  • Appropriate gifts are flowers, good quality chocolates or fruit.
  • Do not give marigolds or carnations, as they are associated with funerals.
  • Try to avoid wrapping a gift in green, black or blue as these are used at funerals and in mourning.
  • Gold and yellow are considered royal colours, so they make good wrapping paper.
  • Only use red wrapping paper if giving a gift to a Chinese Thai.
  • Gifts are not opened when received.
  • Money is the usual gift for weddings and ordination parties.

    Dining & Food

  • A fork and spoon are the usual eating utensils. However, noodles are often eaten with chopsticks.
  • The spoon is held in the right hand and the fork in the left. The fork is used to guide food on to the spoon. Sticky rice, a northern Thai delicacy, is often eaten with the fingers of the right hand.
  • Most meals are served as buffets or with serving platters in the centre of the table family- style.
  • You may begin eating as soon as you are served.
  • Leave a little food on your plate after you have eaten to show that you are full. Finishing everything indicates that you are still hungry.
  • Never leave rice on your plate as it is considered wasteful. The words for food and rice are the same. Rice has an almost mystical significance in addition to its humdrum 'daily bread' function.
  • Never take the last bite from the serving bowl.
  • Wait to be asked before taking a second helping.
  • Do not lick your fingers.

    Visiting a home

    If you are invited to a Thai's house:

  • Arrive close to the appointed time, although being a few minutes late will not cause offence.
  • Check to see if the host is wearing shoes. If not, remove yours before entering the house.
  • Ask another guest to confirm the dress code.
  • Step over the threshold rather than on it. This is an old custom that may be dying out with younger Thais, but erring on the side of conservatism is always a good idea.

    Taboos in Thailand

  • Do not use aggressive gestures or overly loud speech during conversation.
  • Do not sit with your feet pointing towards people.
  • If sleeping in a Thai home then avoid sleeping with your feet towards the family alter.
  • Do not give black gifts or yellow flowers as gifts.
  • Do not criticise the royal family.
  • Do not touch the top of someone’s head as this is considered the most sacred part of the body.
  • Do not eat with your left hand.

    Business Culture, Etiquette & Protocol

  • Business etiquette
  • With the exception of the very south near the Malaysian border (where a number of Thais are Muslim), Thailand is predominantly Buddhist. As many Buddhist holidays are in April and May a number of businesses go on holiday then, so the best months to do business in Thailand are between November and March, which also avoid the extreme heat of summer and monsoon rains.

    Meetings should be arranged well in advance and confirmed the day beforehand. You should arrive on time as this shows respect for your hosts. Do not forget to factor-in the traffic congestion in Bangkok, which can cause gridlock at times!

    Business relationships develop slowly in Thailand, as Thais will want to get to know you well, so it can take many meetings over months or even years to forge a successful partnership – a one-off visit, or merely videoconferencing – will not be sufficient.

    Being a hierarchical society, issues may need extensive discussion at all levels – often over drinks, lunch or dinner – before final decisions are made by senior management. Indeed the purpose of the discussions will not be so much about business as about deepening the relationship. The meal will almost certainly be paid for by your Thai host, so do not insist on paying yourself.

  • What to wear
  • Business attire is conservative.

    Men should wear dark colored conservative business suits.

    Women should wear conservative business suits or dresses.Women need not wear hosiery.

    Since Thai's judge you on your clothing and accessories, ensure that your shoes are always highly polished.

  • Titles
  • Thais tend to be very polite in their interactions and, as such, titles play an important role.

    They typically addresss foreign visitors by their first name – this does not suggest familiarity, e.g. Mrs Sandra or Mr Timothy.

    Address Thais with ‘Khun’ (see naming conventions above).

  • Business cards
  • Your business cards should be printed in Thai on one side. Hand them face-up and with both hands, and offer to the person with the highest social status first. Receive cards with both hands and study before keeping, ideally making a polite comment. Do not write on them or put in a back pocket!

  • Presentations
  • Presentations should be factual and easy to understand, including facts and figures to back up your conclusions. Avoid making exaggerated claims – Thais prefer to conduct business with people who are honest and do not brag about their accomplishments or financial achievements. Always avoid confrontational behaviour and high-pressure sales tactics. Make use of an official interpreter if appropriate, and do not assume all attendees will necessarily have a good command of English.

  • Meetings
  • Appointments are necessary and should be made one month in advance.

    It is good idea to send a list of who will be attending the meeting and their credentials so that Thais know the relative status of the people attending the meeting and can plan properly.

    You should arrive at meetings on time as it signifies respect for the person you are meeting.

    Although most Thais will try to be on time, punctuality is a personal trait.

    Always send an agenda and material about your company as well as data to substantiate your position prior to the meeting. Allow sufficient time for the material to be reviewed and digested.

    Remain standing until told where to sit. The hierarchical culture has strict rules about rank and position in the group.

    Written material should be available in both English and Thai.

    You must be patient.

  • Negotiating
  • Individuals embarking on a negotiation with Thai counterparts should bear in mind the importance of personal relationships when conducting business.

    Since it takes time to develop trusting relationships, it is essential that you do not rush the meetings and approach the topic of business prematurely.

    It is not unusual for initial meetings to take place in restaurants or bars to facilitate initial relationship building.

    Bear in mind the section on ‘Communication Style’ above, which details the indirect communication nature of Thais and be mindful of potential disagreements.

    Your Thai counterpart may avoid confrontation or seek to save your ‘face’ by seeming to agree with something that they are not actually in agreement with.

    The signs that this might be the case, will be in observable in your counterpart’s body language

    Negations may be extremely protracted affairs

  • Management
  • Formality is the essence of business in Thailand and strict rules of protocol are observed.

    Older Thai companies still observe a tradition of rigid hierarchy. However, this is starting to change in some of the younger and more globally facing business.

    Junior staff are typically very respectful of their managers and managers take on the traditional role of ‘manager’ as decision maker and central leader.

    Managers typically ‘look out’ for their staff and are careful not to shame or embarrass in front of their team members.