If you’re off to Thailand for business or moving there as an expat, then we have compiled some essential cultural facts to give you an insight into Thai culture before you go.
By understanding the culture, you are best placed to get the most out of your time in Thailand and to make it a memorable experience for all the right reasons.
So, here's a few cultural insights that will help you make a good impression - or at least prevent you from making a bad one!
Thai Cultural Homogeneity
Thailand is the only country in South East Asia to successfully resist being colonised. For the reason, Thais have a strong culture which has been pretty much unaffected by outsiders. Ethnically, this also makes the Thai people fairly homogenous. It’s estimated that 97.5% of Thais are ethnically Thai. (CIA online sources 2015)
Love of the Thai Royal Family
Love of the royal family is deeply embedded in Thai culture. Thais have a great deal of respect for the monarchy and you will see pictures of the recently deceased King and his son, (to whom power was passed) across Thailand. Under no circumstances should you criticise the royal family when you are in Thailand.
In fact, it’s better that you don’t discuss them at all as your comments might risk being misinterpreted as criticisms. Why is this so important? Because there are laws in Thailand which will land Thais and foreigners alike in prison for a very long time if they criticise, defame, insult or offend the royal family in any way. By prison, we are not just talking about a few weeks punishment, sentences can in fact last 3 – 15 years per count of offence. Take the time to look online and you will see a great number of stories reporting the imprisonment of people who have fallen foul of the law (such as this one).
Respect for Buddhism
Buddhism plays a very important role in Thailand and it’s very important that you take the time to go online and research the etiquette involved in interacting with Thai Buddhists. Respect of Buddhism is as deeply entrenched in Thai culture as that of the royal family. So be careful not to criticise Buddhism in any way and be ready to show respect and deference to Buddhist monks.
If you happen to sport a tattoo of the Buddha, then keep it covered as a complaint could even lead to you being deported. If the tattoo falls below your hips, then be extra careful as the lower on the body the tattoo is, the more offence and upset it is liable to cause. Take note that Thais also find foreigners treating sacred Buddha statues as selfie or photo opportunities very offensive. If you come across Buddha statues, then be respectful around them. Don’t for example lean on them, drape your arm around them or tread on the base of the statue with your foot.
The Thai Smile
You will find that Thai people smile a great deal. In fact, Thais are so famous for smiling that the country is often referred to as the Land of Smiles. It’s important however that you learn how to decode smiles as they are not always as they seem. Thais don’t always smile when they are happy and may in fact use smiles to diffuse difficult situations, such as, when frustrated, upset or angry.
The smile is used to iron out difficulties in situations and to try and retain harmony. When visiting Thailand, you should offer a smile as a hello and always return them. Keep an eye on the smile though and don’t fall into the trap of taking it at face value.
Keeping things Cool
The Thai smile says a lot about Thai culture. Essentially, Thais are a peaceful people, who put group interests ahead of their own interests and who like to maintain harmony. As such, it’s extremely unlikely that you will find anyone losing their temper or displaying anger in Thailand.
This kind of behaviour is really frowned up in Thai culture. If you have reason to be frustrated then try to deal with it by smiling and keeping calm. You are far more likely to resolve things by not resorting to anger. If you become angry, then the situation will likely escalate and you will undoubtedly come out of it badly.
Think about your Feet!
The head is considered the most sacred part of the body in Thailand while the feet are considered the most dirty. You will find that these beliefs feed into two cultural practices. The first is that you shouldn’t touch anybody’s head in Thailand (even children’s heads) and the second is that you should always be wary of your feet. Don’t point them at anybody and, if you’re sat on the floor then tuck them under your bottom out of the way.
Equally, if you go to someone’s home or even some public spaces, then you will be required to remove your shoes. Make sure therefore, that you clean your feet regularly as there’s a great deal of dust and dirt on Thai streets and if you’re wearing flipflops or sandals then removing your shoes might become a source of embarrassment for you!
The culture of Thailand is so incredibly unique that we could fill a whole book with advice. Rather than do this however, we have created an online training programme for those who need to get it right in Thailand.
Typical users of the programme are those who are relocating as expats, or, visiting the country to progress business deals, manage suppliers or to meet with business colleagues.
The online course plays an invaluable role in helping individuals navigate important business processes with insight, understanding and know how. Used by multinationals with a key stake in Thailand, this online course will help you enter the country with your best foot forward.