Thailand Etiquette Guide: Saving Face In The Land Of Smiles

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Thailand cultural etiquette: Temples, restaurants, and public places

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 to 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. This article focuses on Thailand etiquette as to provide you with a better understanding of their culture in case you would like to go live there (or if you’re already living there).

If you’re a foreigner living in Thailand, there may come a time when you have so many questions of 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?

 

Greetings

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).

 

Saving face

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.

 

Addressing people & Thai nicknames

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 Goi (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 (?).

 

Polite words and phrases

  • At the end of your sentence or question, say “ka” (if you’re a woman) and “krab” (if you’re a man). It is polite and Thai people will appreciate it.
  • You should queue up. Do not shove or elbow people in line. If you are on a crowded train or inside an elevator and you wanted to get out, say “kor-toad-krab” or “kor-toad-ka” which means “excuse me”. You could even say “sorry” or “excuse me” in English and Thai people will know that you’re trying to go through.

 

Dress appropriately

  • In Bangkok, it is common to see teenagers and young women wear very short pants and skirts. This is mainly due to the heat and strong influences of Western and Korean fashion trends. Although some Thais frown upon this type of outfit, the trend has gained much popularity in particular in the capital city. However, if you notice, although Thai women do wear short skirts and pants, but their top is often covered up. Very rare will you see Thai women exposing cleavage or their stomach.
  • When you go to an important Thai temple such as Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai or the Grand Palace in Bangkok, please dress appropriately. This means, no shorts or sleeveless tops, and no see-through clothes unless you are wearing a tank top underneath.
  • Take off your shoes when you enter a temple or people’s home. Some Thai homes do provide slippers for guests to wear indoor. It is not hygiene to wear outdoor shoes inside the house because you never know what gross stuff might be stuck at the bottom of your shoes!

 

Behaviors that are considered rude in Thailand

  • Don’t point at people with your finger. Instead, use an open palm to indicate them.
  • Don’t snap your finger at the waiter when you want to call them. If you want to get their attention, wave at them or lift up your hand.
  • Whistling is considered rude in Thailand, so don’t whistle to call people or when you want to get a taxi.
  • Feet is considered the lowest part of the body. This means no putting feet up on chairs, table, or the dashboard of a car! You may have seen some Thai people sit cross-legged with their feet up on chairs at restaurants. But this is not appropriate behavior, so don’t follow it. You can place your feet however way you want at home, but be aware of how you place them in public.
  • If you need to open a door but both of your hands are carrying something, use your shoulder to nudge the door open.  Don’t use your foot to push the door (unless no one is looking).
  • Crossing your legs is ok, but don’t lift your entire leg up to rest your ankle on your knee.
  • Watch the volume of your voice when you’re on the public transportation. Thai people don’t appreciate people who yell and talk too loud. Unless you want people to stare at you, do limit your roaring laughter.
  • Don’t toss money at people. Put it in their hand.
  • Don’t show too much public affection. Holding hands is fine, but kissing and cuddling is a big no-no. Nobody can stop you from doing it, but they’ll give you the side eye and talk behind your back.Thai temple
  • When you go to visit a Thai temple, please show respect by not cracking jokes and talking loudly. If you would like to take picture in front of a Buddha image, try positioning yourself lower than the image by either sitting or crouching.
  • In Thai culture, the head is considered sacred, so don’t touch people’s head or play with their hair.
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