Cultural differences may sometimes lead to misunderstanding and resentment. A thumb-up in America for instance, could mean “great job” or “I agree”, whereas in the Middle East it is considered a swear word. If you’ve ever been on a Thai temple tour, you may have noticed that people would take their shoes off at the entrance, whereas if you go to a church you could keep your shoes on. These differences are what make each culture unique. Understanding cultural differences and learning about them might help make your stay in a foreign country a bit more pleasant because you’ll learn to see things from the other side.
If you’re a foreigner living in Thailand, there may come a time when you question the way things work in the country. Why do Thai people smile even if they don’t feel like it? If Thai people are known to be very polite, then why do they bluntly talk about your weight and skin color? Why do Thai people walk so slow but drive so fast? How many meals do Thai people eat? Why do Thai people use the word “sawadee” for both hello and goodbye?
When you come to Thailand, you may have seen people wai. Wai is a gesture in which you put your hands together as if in prayer. It is used as a way to show respect, to greet, to say thank you, to beg, to say sorry, and to pray. Younger people would initiate the wai to the elders and the elders will receive the wai by doing the same gesture back to them. As a foreigner, you don’t have to wai. Although if you do it, Thai people will be very pleased. In Thai, the word “sawadee” could be used as a greeting and as a farewell. To make it more polite, you may want to add “ka” (if you’re a woman) and “krab” (if you’re a man) after saying sawadee. Example: Sawadee-ka (for woman) & Sawadee-krab (for man).
In many Asian countries, the concept of “saving face” is very important. This is why some Thai people refrain from saying certain things that might humiliate the other person. During a casual conversation, if a Thai person disagrees with something being said, they might just keep quiet and nod their head. It doesn’t mean they agree with the things being said, but they don’t want to embarrass the speaker by objecting or stating a different view point. This is a common scenario if the people in the conversation group don’t know each other really well. Contrary to the belief that Thai people don’t have an opinion or don’t voice their opinion, Thai people DO have an opinion and they DO voice their opinion but they might express it indirectly.
In the Western culture, a person who has a strong opinion and voices their ideas with passion may be viewed as smart and confident. But in the Thai culture, this may come off as a bit arrogant and aggressive. Thais dislike confrontation, that’s why they have the phrase “mai-pen-rai” which means, “it’s ok”. Thailand is known as “Land of Smiles” but the reality is that these smiles do not always reflect how they feel on the inside. In Thai, there is the word “greng-jai” which is used to describe when a person is extra polite as not to offend (or trouble) someone. Sometimes a Thai person may avoid asking for help because he or she greng-jai and doesn’t want to trouble the other person.
In Thailand, people usually call each other by nicknames. This is because Thai first names and last names are very long! Thai nicknames might seem strange for foreigners, but it’s quite normal to have Moo (pig), Naam (water), or Goy (pinky finger) as a nickname. When addressing someone older than you, say “pee” in front of the person’s name such as, “pee Naam”. But if someone is the same age or younger than you, you could just say their name without “pee”.
When in doubt whether to use Mrs., Miss, or Mr., just say “Khun” followed by the person’s name, such as, “Khun John”. Khun is a formal way to address a boss, a customer, or someone you respect. This word could be used to address both genders. Likewise, khun also means “you” (in a polite way). So the next time you want to address a shopkeeper, a waiter, or a random stranger, you may use khun + verb + question. For example, if you want to ask a shopkeeper if she sells a green bag, this is how you would say it in Thai: Khun-mee-gra-pow-see-kiaw-mai. Mee means have, gra-pow means bag, see-kiaw means green color, and mai acts as a question mark (?).