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To Learn the Thai Language You Gotta Learn Thai Culture!

To Learn the Thai Language You Gotta Learn Thai Culture!

You Gotta Learn Thai Culture!…

I want to state this now and for the record that after studying Thai for 7+ years: If you don’t understand Thai culture, you will NEVER EVER understand the nuances of the the language. Period. End of story.

I know that’s a 180 degree flip-flop from my earlier stance back when I started learning Thai. Believe you me, I’m as stubborn as the day is long, but I’m not too stupid to admit it. As far as my saying that Thai culture isn’t important to learning the language, I was 1000% off the scales!

Cross-cultureIf you can read Thai and want to wrap your head around the restrictions Thais operate within culturally, versus the restrictions most foreigners use, then buy Cross Culture ฝรั่งไม่เข้าใจ คนไทยไม่เก็ท by Christopher Wright (aka Chris Delivery). Out of all the books on Thailand and Thai culture I’ve read, it alone taught me how to realistically interact with Thais. It taught me how to put myself ‘in their noses’.

เอาจมูกคนอื่นมาหายใจ
Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
(use someone else’s nose to breathe thru).

When I undertook to learn the Thai language I didn’t put much effort into studying their culture. And needless to say, there were many facets of the language which eluded my understanding. There were a ton of things which were hard for me to work out, that I just plain ไม่เก็ท (didn’t get) about Thai. The first was the rigid and often inflexible way Thais interact in semi-official settings (offices, meetings, with any officialdom) versus the relatively restriction-free interaction they have in informal or intimate social settings.

Another thing that threw me for a loop was the incredibly blunt (and intrusively nosy) questions Thais would ask after first meeting.

“Do you own or rent you room?”
“What do you pay for rent?”
“How much money do you make each month?”
“Do you have a college degree?”
“Where did you go to college?”
“Do you own your own car?”

These questions just plain flabbergasted me. In the US I’da said, “that’s nunya beeswax!” The slang term for none of your business! I couldn’t figure out why it was important for Thais to know all this stuff about me. And needless to say, my Thai spoken language skills stagnated at a mediocre level.

It wasn’t until I started learning about the Thai culture thru reading Cross Culture (ฝรั่งไม่เข้าใจ คนไทยไม่เก็ท) that some of the idiosyncratic things Thais do started to make sense. Better yet, what Thais were doing was making sense in relation to their use of the Thai language.

In regards to an imaginary socio-economic ladder ‘o success, Thais as a rule are far more caught up with the concept of what rung people are standing on than we as westerners are, and that’s why Thais ask blunt questions of people they don’t know. They need to know if you are standing on the same rung as them, or the rung above or below. The answers immediately clues BOTH sides into who’s the superior (พี่) and who’s the subordinate (น้อง). From then on in it’s reflected in the conversation. Effortless (to them) one person then becomes the superior and the other the subordinate.

Thais are also pretty caught up in image, both on how they appear to others and how others appear to them. Now, I’ve met more than my fair share of real honest-to-goodness millionaires in Thailand, foreigners ultra-successful in their own right. It would seem to me that a way lot dress pretty darn casual. So casual in fact, that most Thais wouldn’t give them a second glance and more than a few Thais probably wouldn’t even give them the time of day, if asked. Conversely, EVERY single Thai I’ve met who either has real money or who pretends to have it, dresses to the nines.

I know a Thai guy who lives in a shoe-box Thai apartment and could get to work via the BTS in minutes, yet he drives an entry-level BMW to work. He takes an hour each way, just so he can be seen by his coworkers. It would seem that Thais took that old Canon camera commercial with Andre Agassi using the catch phrase “image is everything” to a new, heretofore unheard of level!

The thing I found interesting was that the more I researched the Thai culture, the more I understood the “whyz” as far as Thaiz behaving in a particular way during the conversations I’d have, and in conversations I’d eavesdrop on when they thought I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I’m now at the point where I think the language and the culture are inextricably woven together. In fact, I believe they’re two sides of the same coin. It’s like you can’t learn language to its full extent without having to stomach a very healthy dose of culture too.

Everyone states that the Thai language has several registers, varying from official speak (ภาษาราชการ, ภาษาราทางการ) and going right down in descending order to market language (ภาษาตลาด). I concur wholeheartedly. There are a multitude of registers available to speak Thai with. However, I am of the mind that as foreign speakers of Thai, we just need a good mid register. You know, one that isn’t so sugary sweet and over the top in politeness that we come off sounding like we’re kowtowing to the Thais, yet not so coarse that it curls a Thais hair.

Disclaimer: I freely admit that Todz-Thai might be a little on the rough side for some. I don’t speak that way to be rude to Thais on porpoise, err on purpose. It’s just that I didn’t want to lose who/what I am about simply because I’m a foreigner who happens to speak Thai with Thais. I am not compelled to embrace, acknowledge or follow the cultural restrictions Thais operate within, but a foreign speaker of Thai I am 100% compelled to understand them.

I speak really blunt, terse, coarse and to the point Thai. I don’t mince words. I don’t dance around the point. And I ask repeatedly if they understand (เก็ทมั้ย). Remember, Thais will feign understanding just to interact politely with someone. It’s almost as if the overriding component in verbal communication is that everyone’s polite, and whether anything gets accomplished or not seems a very distant second place. And I just won’t accept those pat, knee jerk answers Thais give like ไม่มี, ไม่ได้ as valid answers to the questions I pose.

It is my experience that a Thai who says ไม่ได้ or even worse spits out the English “cannot” isn’t saying that it can’t be done. What they’re really saying is they don’t know how to do it. So to understand what’s going on you need to breathe thru the nose of that Thai. You need to understand the invisible cultural restrictions which come into play during these types of interactions.

Example: you ask a Thai if something can be done. Now, the Thai you asked can’t say, “I don’t know”, because they’d lose face. They can’t say, “wow, that’s a good question, let me go check”, because once again, they’d lose face. In fact, due to the overpowering need in the subconscious mind of every Thai to save, give, gain and/or not lose face, the only right answer for them when they don’t know the answer, or don’t know how to go about doing something, is to say “cannot”.

It’s vexing, but there are workarounds to this. But, it takes an understanding of how Thais operate within their cultural restrictions, along with a fair command of Thai, to be able to back a Thai into a corner where the only face-saving option for them is to do what you want or go find someone who knows the answer to your request.

What I’m trying to say is that you, as a foreigner speaking Thai, do not have to adopt to any of the Thai cultural norms to interact with Thais. There is a huge difference between understanding the mythical beast known as Thai culture, and mimicking how Thais interact culturally.

When interacting with Thais, the very fact we are Thai speaking foreigners should be exploited to the n-th degree. Clearly, we don’t fit neatly into their tidy cubby-holes like the other Thais do.

We are free to interact with a CEO of a business just as easily and seamlessly, as we can interact with the lady who’s mopping the floors, or the guy who opens the door for us. It’s something foreigners here ไม่เก็ท (don’t get).

In the way they speak Thai and the way they behave, I see foreigners wandering around trying to mimic the Thais. Honestly, most do a really piss poor job of pulling it off! They act more like an over-the-top caricature than someone who is genuinely embracing the Thai culture. From my perspective, it’s not that they aren’t genuine towards the Thais, it’s just how they are coming across to me.

I am not suggesting to be rude or unkind. As a boy I was taught (had it beaten into my backside with a willow switch) that “courtesy doesn’t take a college degree”. I’m saying to be polite, be firm, stand your ground, and don’t take the first answer a Thai gives you as the real answer to your problem. On so many occasions I’ve had Thais tell me “no” and then after further discourse, I’ve had them either do what I requested, or go and get someone else.

Individual Thais are ultra-afraid to make a wrong decision and thereby bear the brunt of the responsibility. They’re much more collective decision makers than foreigners are. It’s one of the most limiting factors when foreigners work with Thais. A foreign boss gives a Thai a project and it progresses along just fine until the point where the Thai has to make a decision which can affect the outcome. It’s then that they go into a safe mode, afraid to make the wrong decision. So what happens is that the project languishes on their desk until the foreign boss is forced to decide for them. This high uncertainty avoidance trait is a limiting cultural aspect amongst the Thais. And I predict that there’s a very good chance that with the opening of the AEC, it will become even more apparent to everyone.

I’ve said over and over that I’ve never wai’d a single Thai and most likely never will. In fact, I have two t-shirts made up eons ago. One says “Why wai? R U Thai?” and the other one says “Silly foreigner. Wai’z R 4 Thais”. Now, I totally understand the intricacies involved in the various levels of respect that wai’ing in Thailand encompasses. Because I’m not Thai, I just don’t want to wai. In the 10+ years I’ve been here, interacting with Thais on every rung of their ladder ‘o success, I’ve never not wai’ing be an impediment to talkin’ to, doing business with, or getting things done with ANY Thai. Not a single time.

I did finally break down and get a couple sets of those clickers pasted on the inside heels of my shoes, just like the Thai police and military. It was my compromise for never wai’ing. If I feel I owe a Thai acknowledgement for doing their job (which BTW is something I find strange any way you wanna try to explain it) I’ll nod my head and click my shoes. That’s about the best they can expect outta me.

Get that book I recommended – Cross Culture ฝรั่งไม่เข้าใจ คนไทยไม่เก็ท by Christopher Wright – it totally rocks!! It’d be even better translated into English. Because even though it’s written from the perspective of helping Thais understand foreigners, it’d be a bestseller as it’d help foreigners understand Thais too.

Good Luck,
Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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Tod’s specialty is reviewing Thai language schools in Bangkok. And in his years studying Thai he’s also collected a few language learning tips to share with you.

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10 Comments

  1. 555+ I love your writing, Todd! And I think you’re making a number of good points, especially the idea that we Westerners don’t need to conform to the Thai way of social interaction. In order to navigate Thai society successfully, I believe it is key to understand the framework Thais operate in, but then it’s equally important that we allow ourselves to exploit the fact that we are not Thai, as you say. It’s probably much easier for Westerners to exploit (= navigate skillfully) the rigid social framework in Thailand than for a Thai to use their approach to social interaction to their benefit in Western societies, it seems more like a one-way street; any thoughts? Apart from that I don’t have much to add, I think you’re spot on. And I’ll be considering not wai’ing anymore, that’s a pretty interesting idea.

  2. I’m not big at wai’ing as well. I do on occasion and usually regret it (poking an eye out with my thumb is difficult to explain away).

  3. That was the best article I’ve read in years! Even helped me to reconcile something about my wife when asking her questions.

    Tod, if you ever feel so inclined I would love to hear your advice for working out of the ไม่ได้ conundrum.

  4. เอาจมูกคนอื่นมาหายใจ does not mean “to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. It basically means “a situation where you have to depend on someone else’s help in order for you to survive”.

    เอาจมูกคนอื่นมาหายใจ
    สํานวนสุภาษิตนี้ บางครั้งก็เรียกว่า “ยืมจมูกคนอื่นหายใจ” หมายถึงการต้องอาศัยความช่วยเหลือจากผู้อื่นเพื่อให้ตนเองนั้นอยู่รอดต่อไปได้ แต่หากผู้ที่ช่วยนั้นหยุดการช่วยเหลือ จะทำให้คนนั้นต้องประสบปัญญาเข้าขั้นวิกฤติได้
    ที่มาของสํานวน เปรียบเปรยถึง คนเราต้องใช้จมูกในการหายใจ หากไม่มีจมูกเพื่อหายใจก็จะตายได้ (เป็นการเปรียบเปรย) โดยถ้าหากเราต้องยืมจมูกคนอื่นเพื่อหายใจและให้ตัวเองอยู่รอด เมื่อใดที่เค้าไม่ช่วยเหลือเราอีกต่อไป เราก็จะอยู่ต่อไปไม่ได้

    http://www.suphasitthai.com/%E0%B9%80%E0%B8%AD%E0%B8%B2%E0%B8%88%E0%B8%A1%E0%B8%B9%E0%B8%81%E0%B8%84%E0%B8%99%E0%B8%AD%E0%B8%B7%E0%B9%88%E0%B8%99%E0%B8%A1%E0%B8%B2%E0%B8%AB%E0%B8%B2%E0%B8%A2%E0%B9%83%E0%B8%88

  5. Andrej,
    Thanx for reading my post. I believe and have seen first hand the difficulties with Thaiz going to America experience. They come back saying things like, “Why is everyone so rude?” “People yell at one another and at me too!”

    It is especially evident in work environments. A Thai will say, “My American boss yelled at me and then wanted to go have drinks after work!!” Thaiz can’t get their heads around the fact we leave work things at work. If I’m your boss I might ball you out for not finishing a project but when we clock out we can go pound down a few cold ones without thinking about it. Thaiz can’t.

    If a thai is reprimanded at work (even in private) they’d NEVER think of going out after work with that person for a good long while. Sheesh, sometimes they won’t even sit with them during lunch in the company cafeteria! Everything is personal to them, there is no work is work and play is play, leave it at the door when you clock out.

    We have it FAR easier here dealing with the many different levels of thai society. Although we have a lot of trouble in a work environment dealing with the “let’s have a polite interaction even if nothing gets said” mindset which is so prevalent here.

    Thanx again

  6. Thanx for the kudoz, Josh. It’s just stuff I’ve realized here tryin’ to learn the language without first learning about the culture of the people using the language. It didn’t work out all that well..

    That ทำไม่ได้ conundrum is a sticky wicket indeed. Ran into it today with a government official. Was finally able to work around it, or work around them, to get to the person who could ทำได้, but for a while I thought I wasn’t gonna be able to get it to fly..

  7. David Indy, Thanx for taking the time to read my post.

    I dunno that site but. … ANY time I read in an “about us” page that this site was created because they see ภาษาวิบัติ (which BTW they spelled incorrectly as วิวับัติ <- not the best spell checker), I usually stop believing what they say. It's just a personal thing.

    Now I sure ain't Thai! I freely admit I could be wrong and you could be right.

    Honestly though, I vetted that phrase with real live Thaiz.. I am of the mind this idiom's meaning has possibly warped or changed over time.

    I reviewed a book called 5,000 สำนวนไทย นับเเต่อดีตจวบจนปัจจุบัน by เอกรัตน์ อุดมพร. In it they have the meaning as; อาศัยผู้อื่นมักไม่สะดวก which I take to mean as living with/being around someone quickly becomes not all that fun or convenient. I took that meaning Soi side and didn't get a consensus from the Thaiz that was what it meant either, so I discounted it as well.

    I was told that breath with someone's nose was along the lines of เห็นจากตาของคนอื่น see from someone else's eyez, view an experience or situation from the perspective of someone else.

    Maybe I should change it to say เห็นจากตาของคนอื่น. That'd fly for sure and remove ANY of the ambiguity or crossed wires of my possibly errant Thai idiom and meaning.

    Thanx again..

  8. Haha. Yeah, there are some funny situations when the cultures “clash”.

    I have somehow always been really good at adjusting and fitting in and I admit that this can actually get in the way here in Thailand while it sometimes is highly appreciated.
    After all fitting in smoothly is very thai.
    And they do appreciate a “good guest” as much as they like to be good hosts.

    But I have also limited my wais and found a better middle ground between soaking up the culture and keeping and showing my identity.
    Overall I find wais are a nice gesture though.

    It is important to understand that you are allowed to fumble certain situations even after many years in Thailand, because they perceive it as somehow deeply hardwired.
    It just gets weird if they apply their understanding of “our” culture in certain situations and treat “us” in a way that they feel must appropriate now.
    Then it can get really awkard :D
    Simple example is “shake hands” :D

    Another point is that while they tend to get irritated by assertiveness, they actually admire it.
    It is usually more reserved to those of clearly higher status.
    And I think that, if played well, it can be used to get ones way, because you are indicating a higher status to them.

    As you said: “they have their tidy cubby-holes” and frankly that is something I will never be able to adapt to.
    I even realized – after a while – that making friends with the maids too much was getting me some funny comments.
    And that having a frivolous chat with the boss was only allowed when he clearly indicated it.

  9. Michel Boismard

    October 17, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    For a clear enlightening of the reality,values and behaviour behind the Thai language and to enable one to make choices of individual attitudes as a foreigner without misunderstandings,I would again nudge all eager cultural exiles here to read the excellent
    “WONDERING INTO THAI CULTURE”by MONT REDMOND (Ed.Mont Redmond,1998).

  10. Michel, I read that book on my move to Thailand and appreciated its honesty. It’s been years now – I really should read it again.

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