Thai culture has many particularities, most of which the average visitor will never come across. However if you plan to live in Thailand, it is important to be aware of cultural differences and to know which blunders to avoid. Below is a list of general rules, so as to avoid uncomfortable situations with locals and enjoy more your stay.
Unless you are of Asian ancestry, you will be easily recognizable as a foreigner. Caucasians in Thailand are collectively known as “farang” (meaning westerners). In some areas, seeing a foreigner in the flesh is a fairly uncommon situation, and you may, therefore, attract a considerable amount of attention and curiosity.
Some Thais will seize the opportunity to practice their English skills, and they may surprise you with unexpected greetings. Unfortunately their English competency is often limited and you could expect somewhat coarse greetings, such as, “Hey you!”, “You, you, you” or “Where you go?”. These greetings are not meant to be offensive, so a simple smile and a “Hello” are suitably appropriate responses.
On occasion, Thais may attempt more personal questions regarding your age, salary or marital status. If these questions become too intrusive, merely smile and tell them that it is a secret. Thailand is, after all, the “Land of Smiles.”
As a general rule, Thais tend to dress more modestly than westerners. Although T-shirts are acceptable for going just about anywhere, sports clothes and tank tops are worn almost exclusively for sporting activities. For casual wear, men and women’s shorts should be of a modest length.
Office or Teaching Attire:
Clothes worn for teaching or working in the office are quite formal. However, instructors working in a laboratory are not expected to wear formal attire. A basic guide for appropriate attire in the workplace is as follows:
- Women should avoid wearing sleeveless or see-through blouses. Dresses, skirts and slacks are acceptable, but not the jeans.
- Men should refrain from wearing sandals, shorts, T-shirts, and jeans. Shoes and shirts with a collar are required for lecturers in the classroom. Ties are not mandatory, but they are recommended for formal occasions.
Every culture is unique and has its own types of acceptable behavior. Many difficulties and frustrations may arise when people try to integrate into a new culture. Culture shock may occur when foreigners feel excessively homesick, bored, or withdrawn from their primary countries of residence. Upon first arrival in Thailand, most foreigners will probably experience some degrees of culture shock.
Even with adequate preparation, culture shock may be impossible to prevent. The best advice is to be patient. Overcoming it takes time, but experiences will ultimately broaden your perspective and help you grow and get accustomed to the new environment.
Thais are culturally inclined to promote social harmony, and they could go to inordinate lengths to avoid any sort of personal conflict. Thais will also tend to be subtler about expressing a difference of opinion. It will often be voiced in such an indirect, non-confrontational manner that you may wonder what point they are trying to make. Within western cultures, many tend to openly show feelings of anger or impatience. In the context of Thai culture, though, it is considered impolite to display such negative emotion.
An important social concept throughout Asia is that of “saving face”. The intricacies of this concept are far beyond the scope of this booklet, but you should at least be aware of its existence. Thais place tremendous importance on being considerate, especially when it comes to “saving face”. If, for example, a waiter or waitress brought a Thai an iced tea instead of the ordered iced coffee, the Thai would probably choose to drink it rather than embarrass the server by sending it back.
Shoes or sandals should always be removed before entering a home or a temple. Be aware that some offices and businesses may also require shoe removal prior to entry. If in doubt, check the area near the door to see if there are shoes or shoe racks.
Boarding with a Thai family will unquestionably provide a unique experience. A few tips are mentioned below, which should help make staying with a Thai family a rewarding experience.
* Your Thai family may not seem as outwardly expressive as your family back home, especially with regards to negative emotion. Although they may pay you compliments without hesitation. When they have differences of opinion or disapproval of something, the signs may be expressed so subtly that you might not realize the true message. For example, if you return home rather late in the evening, your host family may comment the next day that you must be tired. They will let you know that they noticed, but they most likely will not tell you to come home sooner.
* Complaining about things is generally considered to be impolite. Thais also tend to take criticism more personally than westerners, so any negative comment should be softened or made as indirect as possible. On the contrary, you should also be careful of saying that you really like something when shopping with your host family; the Thai sense of generosity may cause them to feel obliged to purchase it for you. If you are given a gift, graciously accept it and try to be equally generous at a future point in time.
* When dinning out in Thailand, it is customary for the most senior person in the group (either in age or status) to pay for everyone. If someone offers to pick up the bill, you should accept their generosity even if it compromises your own cultural beliefs.
* Staying with a host family should not be viewed as a boarding house situation. Thai host families consider it an honor and a privilege to take in foreign students. Your host family will think of you as a member of the family. Therefore, you should behave appropriately in accord with the family’s expectations.
* You should be aware that a Thai host family might be over-protective at times. Although most university students in Thailand are young adults, they are still considered to be under the care and guidance of their parents. As a result, it may be necessary to sacrifice some personal independence for the betterment of family harmony. Always tell your family where you are going and approximately when you plan to return. If you will arrive home late, you should call to let them know.
* Do not touch a Thai person’s head, as it is considered the most sacred part of the body.
* Try to maintain your head at the same level of others. If people are seated on the floor, you should avoid standing over them for a prolonged period of time.
* Always remove your shoes before entering a person’s home or a temple. Do so even if you are told that you can leave them on.
* Using your feet for anything other than standing or walking is unacceptable. Do not prop your feet up on a table or desk, and try not to point your feet at people.
* It is considered impolite to point your finger directly at someone.
* Show reverence to all Buddhist objects and places. Women should not touch a monk or his robes, and they should not wear sleeveless shirts and/or shorts in temples.
* When eating with Thais, several dishes are usually ordered. You should take a few spoonfuls of each dish at a time. Do not pile large quantities of food on your plate.
* Public displays of affection are definitely not encouraged.
* Thais greet each other with a Wai, a prayer-like gesture whereby the palms of the hands are pressed together and raised. This level ranges between one’s bosom and nose: the higher represent the most respect, but normally it should not be higher than the highest level just stipulated. As a general rule it is polite to Wai when meeting someone older or in a more senior position than you.
Thai is a tonal language, which means that the tone of a word is used to distinguish meaning. Since there are five different tones, a word pronounced incorrectly is likely to have an entirely different meaning from that which was intended.
Please remember that when speaking English it is advisable to speak slowly and clearly. Do avoid using slang and idiomatic phrases, which will only confuse most Thais.
Although behavioral expressions have become more liberal in recent years, holding hands is the only acceptable form in public of physical contact between members of the opposite sex. Anything further may be perceived to be in bad taste and may give a negative impression.
However, it is quite common to see Thai females holding hands or walking with their arms around each other. It is not as common for Thai men, but they do come into contact with each other beyond what many male westerns feel comfortable with. This by no means gives any indication about their sexual orientations, but instead, it is merely a common display of friendship in Thailand.
Although Thailand does have an infamous sex industry, this is not an accurate reflection of the sexual morals of the average Thai females. On the contrary, Thai females are very conservative, and males should be careful to avoid incidental contact with Thai women unless they are close personal friends.
In the past, Thai society was rigidly structured, and one’s social hierarchy was determined primarily by one’s status in society. While things have changed in recent times, Thais still place a great significance on one’s position based on age, occupation, education, and wealth. Foreigners should be aware of a few guidelines in relation to this.
The most respected members of Thai society are the King and His Royal family. You should NEVER make any disparaging or unflattering remarks about the Thai Royal family even in jest. To do so would be considered a grave insult not only to the Royal family, but also to Thailand and its people. Lese Majeste is a matter that Thai people take it very seriously.
Thailand is a religious country, and Buddhist monks are shown great respect in Thai society. Women should maintain a comfortable distance between themselves and monks because monks are forbidden to come into contact with women.
Teachers, particularly university professors, are also highly placed and are usually addressed by the title of “Ajarn”, meaning professor.
Foreigners are automatically granted a high level of status, as they are often regarded as guests. It is, however, incumbent upon foreigners to behave in a fashion that shows they are deserving of this generous respect.
Outward appearances are important in Thai society. The saying “clothes make a person” without question holds true in Thailand. Thais will appreciate foreigners who make a concerted effort to maintain a professional, reserved appearance. Most potential blunders or faux pas can be avoided by adhering to a few basic guidelines.
Each faculty at PSU has its own uniform code. The student dress code at PSU not only serves to identify the respective faculty of each student, but also shows respect for both the teachers and the university. Wearing inappropriate clothing in a classroom may be interpreted as disrespectful to the teacher, and offending students might not be allowed to attend class. Please keep in mind that the Pattani campus is located in a predominately Muslim area, where more modest standards of dress are the norm.