A Look at Thai Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette
Welcome to our guide to Thailand. This is useful for anyone researching Thai culture, customs, manners, etiquette, values and wanting to understand the people better. You may be going to Thailand on business, for a visit or even hosting Thai colleagues or clients in your own country. Remember this is only a very basic level introduction and is not meant to stereotype all Thais you may meet!
Facts and Statistics
Location: Southeastern Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, southeast of Burma
Climate: tropical; rainy, warm, cloudy southwest monsoon (mid-May to September); dry, cool northeast monsoon (November to mid-March); southern isthmus always hot and humid
Population: 67,741,401 (2014 est.)
Ethnic Make-up: Thai 75%, Chinese 14%, other 11%
Religions: Buddhism 95%, Muslim 3.8%, Christianity 0.5%, Hinduism 0.1%, other 0.6% (1991)
Government: constitutional monarchy
Languages in Thailand
The Thai language is comprised of 44 consonants, 32 vowels and five tones in Thai pronunciation, along with a script that has Indian origins. The Thai language, belonging to the Tai family, is the main language in Thailand although there are several regional dialects as well. Other languages spoken in Thailand are Chinese, Lao, Malay and Mon-Khmer, while English use is becoming more prevalent in government and commerce. English is also being taught as a second language in secondary school and universities, which enables the English speaking visitor in Thailand to have little trouble conversing.
Thai Society & Culture
- 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.
Buddhism in Thailand
- Thailand is a stronghold of Buddhism.
- Buddhists believe that life does not begin with birth and end with death, but rather that every person has several lives based upon the lessons of life not yet learned and acts committed (karma) in previous lives.
- Buddhists believe that selfishness and craving result in suffering and that compassion and love bring happiness and well-being.
- The true path to peace is to eliminate all desire, a condition which Buddhists define as 'nirvana', an indescribable state free of desire, suffering, or further rebirth, in which a person simply is, and is completely at one with his surroundings.
- Buddhism is practised in Thailand by over 90% of the population.
- Thais respect hierarchical relationships.
- Social relationships are defined as one person being superior to the other.
- Parents are superior to their children, teachers to their students, and bosses to their subordinates.
- When Thais meet a stranger, they will immediately try to place you within a hierarchy so they know how you should be treated.
- This is often done by asking what might be seen as very personal questions in other cultures.
- Status can be determined by clothing and general appearance, age, job, education, family name, and social connections.
Thai Family Values
- The family is the cornerstone of Thai society.
- Family life is often more closely knit than in western cultures.
- The Thai family is a form of hierarchy with the parents at the top.
- Children are taught to honour their parents.
- Thais place great emphasis and value on outward forms of courtesy such as politeness, respect, genial demeanour and self-control in order to maintain harmonious relations.
- Many of their rules of etiquette are by-products of the Buddhist religion.
- It is a non-confrontational society, in which public dispute or criticism is to be avoided at all costs.
- To be openly angry with someone might attract the wrath of the spirits, which in turn could cause violence and tragedy.
- Openly criticizing a person is a form of violence as it hurts the person and is viewed as a conscious attempt to offend the person being rebuked
- Loss of face is a disgrace to a Thai so they try to avoid confrontations and look for compromises in difficult situations.
- If two parties disagree, one will need to have an outlet to retreat without losing face.
Etiquette & Customs in Thailand
- The wai (as mentioned above) is the traditional form of greeting, given by the person of lower status to the person of higher status.
- Thais generally use first rather than surnames, with the honorific title Khun before the name. Khun is an all- purpose form of address that is appropriate for both men and women
- In general, wait for your host and hostess to introduce you to the other guests. This allows everyone to understand your status relative to their own, and thus know who performs the wai and how low the head should be bowed.
Gift Giving Etiquette
- 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.
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.
- 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.
Business Etiquette and Protocol
Relationships & Communication
- Thais prefer doing business with people they respect.
- Relationships develop slowly and do not flourish after one meeting; it may take several meetings.
- Always be respectful and courteous when dealing with others as this leads to the harmonious relationships necessary within business.
- Thai communication is formal and non-verbal communication is often more important than verbal communication.
- Rank is always respected. The eldest person in the group is revered.
- It is difficult for most Thais to say no, so you must be cognizant of their non- verbal communication.
- Watch your body language and facial expressions, as these will be believed over your words.
Business Meeting Etiquette
- 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.
- Business attire is conservative.
- Men should wear dark coloured 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.
- Business cards are given out after the initial handshake and greeting. In theory, you should give your card to the most senior person first. . It is advisable to have one side of your business card translated into Thai.
- Using your right hand, deliver your business card so the Thai side faces the recipient.
- Look at a business card for a few seconds before placing it on the table or in a business card case. As in most Asian countries, it is polite to make some comment about the card, even if it is only to acknowledge the address.