Common Customs of Thailand
Thais are among the world’s most tolerant people and will forgive your cultural faux pas as long as they are unintentional; however, there are two things that you must respect during your stay in Thailand: the royal family, and religion.
While it is possible to discuss political problems, never criticize the monarchy, and always stand during the National Anthem. Religious objects and sites, such as Buddha images and the wat (Buddhist temples), are sacred to the Thais. It is important for visitors to show respect by dressing conservatively whenever they visit a wat. Remove shoes and keep feet pointed toward the back when you sit down. Women should not hand anything directly to a Buddhist monk or touch the monk or his robes in any way as doing so would violate one of his most important vows – not to touch women.
Thai society, like many others in Asia, is very hierarchical. People earn more respect with increasing age, wealth, and education. As a general rule, a subordinate listens to, serves, and follows the directions of his or her superior without comment or question. In return, the superior takes care of the subordinate as a mentor of sorts. To place you in relation to themselves, Thais will ask you questions that may seem rude, but aren’t meant to be; for example, you may be asked about your age, salary, and marital status. The social structure is often revealed in restaurants when either the oldest or wealthiest person in the group pays for everyone. To make a good impression on your superiors and subordinates, bring them small gifts, particularly after trips.
In the business world, most Thais use the Western tradition of handshaking. The traditional greeting is the wai, a prayer-like gesture in which the palms are pressed together and the fingers held upward with the thumbs almost touching the nose.
Social inferiors generally put their palms higher and keep their heads to a lower level than those they regard as superior. Younger people wai first. The wai is also used when saying “thank you,” or kop khun kha/khrap, when receiving a gift or special favor.
The most important tools of your success in Thailand will be patience, patience, and patience. In Thailand, a person who lets inconveniences pass or forgives easily is respected for his or her jai yen (cool heart), whereas one who gets angry or shows aggression is forever labeled as jai ron (hot heart). Even small children are taught not to show anger or emotions, especially by crying. A common phrase to use as a “relief valve” is mai pen rai, which means “it’s nothing” or “it’s OK.” Say it with a smile and you will make no enemies.
When eating a meal with Thais, try to use the correct utensils. Spoons, forks, and chopsticks all have their appropriate (and inappropriate) uses. Rice dishes are eaten with a fork and spoon only, and noodles are eaten with chopsticks. When a group of people order food in a restaurant, it is usually served “family style” with common serving platters in the middle of the table. Instead of heaping the food all at once onto your plate, follow the example of your Thai hosts: they will take a spoonful or two from the serving platter, put it next to their rice on their personal plates, then eat it slowly. Be sure to leave a little food on your plate to show that you have had enough, and never take the last bite from the common platter.
Bargaining is common practice, and should always be employed when hiring vehicles or shopping at open-air markets. There is no bargaining in restaurants, supermarkets, or when the price is indicated on a label or sign. Tipping generally isn’t necessary, especially at less expensive restaurants and for taxi rides.
Thailand’s hierarchical system is not limited to social structure, it also affects personal clothing. The feet, and therefore the shoes, are the lowest part of the body and are often dusty. This is why shoes are always removed when entering a home or temple, so be sure you always have clean feet or an extra pair of socks that you can put on just before reaching your destination. When sitting in a chair, avoid crossing your feet, as this may result in pointing your foot at someone, which is considered to be rude. When sitting on the floor, follow the example of your host: crossed legs are fine for men, but women usually bend their knees and tuck their feet under and to one side. The head, being the highest part of the body, is revered. Never touch a Thai person’s head.
Along with the respect you will have as a teacher comes the responsibility of acting like one, and the way you dress is the most obvious action you will take. Male Thai teachers wear dress shirts and slacks, and women wear smartly tailored skirt-suits and dresses. T-shirts, jeans, and shorts are never worn on the job, and flowing or high-wasted dresses are for maternity only. If necessary, you can have conservative clothing tailored at very reasonable rates when you arrive. Once you make a good impression, you may have the freedom to “dress down.”