Combining a long history, rich cultural heritage and complex social hierarchy, Thai etiquette is a fascinating, sometimes rigid, but dignified characteristic that sets the country apart from its Asian contemporaries. Perhaps among the most relaxed and easy going societies in the world, Thailand is welcoming of outsiders and tolerant of the differences, yet its people continue to steadfastly uphold some strict traditional habits that have not been diluted by outside influence.
Most Thais are uniform in their efforts to fit in with their fellow countrymen and observe time honoured manners, whether they are royalty or a simple rice farmer. As a visitor, you will be welcomed gracefully, no matter how uncouth you might appear, but observing a few of the most important etiquette rules will both delight and impress your hosts. It will also minimise the risk of misunderstandings.
The monarchy: the Thai people pay their monarchy the upmost respect and the current King Rama IX HM Bhumibol Adulyadej is much beloved for his 60+ years of impressive servitude to his subjects. He is indeed worthy of all the adulation that the nation heaps on him and any suggestion otherwise won’t go down very well. Public slander is likely to land you in jail. The royals are treated with upmost respect and an enormous amount of space and energy is devoted to this. Visitors should avoid any behaviour that is disrespectful including defacing images (such as those on banknotes).
Saving face: perhaps the single most important consideration for fitting in harmoniously with your Thai environment – be it work colleagues, family, friends, business associates, customers or even the general public – is understanding the concept of saving face. In a potentially confrontational situation, people in Thailand are expected to avoid negative or damaging behaviour (at least in public), depending on the status of the other party. This is usually done by keeping cool, tolerating the problem and forgiving the error with the trademark mai pen rai (‘never mind’). Foreigners aren’t quite as skilled, and frustrations boil over. Thais will seldom retaliate but will certainly be quietly displeased, even of innocent complaints.
The wai greeting: is a graceful act of the bringing together of the hands to the chest and bending the head to bring the hands and nose together, to show respect to people of older age or of a higher social status. It’s a standard greeting in Thailand, from family reunions to business meetings, from rock stars meeting fans to showing respect to a Buddha image. Those of lower status initiate the wai; their elder will then respond with a slightly less enthusiastic wai. Visitors needn’t worry too much about the wai, even when service staff wai them, but responding to Thai acquaintances is polite. To wai incorrectly, for example, to someone less important to you, is considered embarrassing.
Eating: this is an important communal activity which is central to the lives of all Thais and is typically a time to relax and relish the company of friends or colleagues. Eating alone is considered unsociable, with Thais typically sharing several dishes together around a table or floor mat, with everyone picking slowly at the various dishes. Food is something to be shared and offered to strangers, so don’t be surprised if you’re invited to gin kaew (‘eat rice’) or are frequently greeted with the question gin kaew ruu yang (‘have you eaten?’). The correct thing to do is join in, even for a few minutes. The wealthiest at the table usually picks up the tab (an honour), so don’t feel cheated if your companion invites a handful of friends and presents you with the bill – you’ll be much respected.
Elder respect: in Thai society, showing respect for your elders or those of higher rank and importance to you (like a work colleague) is extremely important and will elicit an indignant response if neglected. Typically, elders whom you are familiar with are addressed as pii, meaning older sister/brother. Khun (Mr/Mrs) is used in more formal situations, while mothers and fathers of friends can be called mae (mother) or paw (father). Monks are universally paid respect regardless of their age (but not novice monks), as are teachers. Both expats and visitors should simply be aware of showing disrespect to elders.
The head: the sensitive issue of the head is also an important note, as it’s considered sanctified and not to be touched by other people besides one’s parents or people in a close relationship. This presents a problem for lofty foreigners as Thais will do their best not to tower above another person’s head, usually ducking when passing before you, or near a seated person. Try to remember this, to avoid an affront to dignity.
The feet: on the other hand, feet are considered dirty and should not be pointed directly at people or even things. Thais don’t wear shoes in their indoor living areas as these are to be removed and left outside. Always remember to remove shoes when going indoors, thus slip ons are more ideal. No matter how smartly dressed you are, a lowly pair of flip flops on your feet are considered quite acceptable. Using your feet to point, or carry out an action (like turning a switch off) is a no-no, and putting your feet up and thus pointing at someone is uncouth. Even when seated on a temple floor, be sure to tuck your feet away neatly.
Dress code and appearance: is another important aspect of everyday life and unless you come across a penniless farmer, expect to find almost all Thais – especially in the cities – to be very well dressed. The women in particular take great care in their appearance, and sweaty clothes, body odour, skimpy outfits (unless you are being a belligerent 21st century teenager), topless men, and unkempt hair are considered to be poor taste.
Of course, pop culture is changing this in some quarters, and beach areas are an exception, but don’t expect to be treated with respect if you show up in your gardening kit. Dress codes in temples are stricter, requiring covered shoulders and sometime long pants, but standard fisherman pants and shawls are often rented out to accommodate unknowing visitors.
Superstition: this is a big deal in Thailand and all Thais, pious or otherwise, will have some sort of fear, or respect and belief in spirits. This governs their lives quite significantly with frequent merit-making exercises, visits to temples, consultation with seers and observation of traditional superstitions. The many spirit houses located on properties everywhere are testament to the importance of appeasing spirits, real or imaginary, and it can sometimes cause some inconvenience. Befriending a Thai is a great way to learn more about these spiritual intricacies.
Religion: going hand-in-hand with their complex spirit world is the deep influence of Buddhism on life in Thailand. With temples everywhere, and monks called in to bless everything from a new car to a company launch, few Thais would risk ignoring their religious beliefs, no matter how cosmopolitan and hip they are. Visitors may treat aspects of Buddhism as tourist attractions but they are expected to show respect, not to climb on religions relics nor show disrespect to Buddhist images. Patience in dealing with Thai religious habits is expected.
Public behaviour: the middle class and dignified working class are surprisingly conservative and old fashioned, especially regarding romantic display of affection in public. Pop culture has greatly changed perceptions among the young lately, but many would still feel somewhat embarrassed to be holding hands with their foreign boyfriend or girlfriend among the elders of the village. The myth of marrying as a virgin is still greatly upheld as a traditional charade.
Keeping cool: Thais pay much attention to body language together with tone of voice. Thai people are characteristically harmonious and passive. In normal circumstances, speak softly without showing any aggression or strong emotion. Raising your voice, even if you don’t mean to be rude, isn’t going to win you friends. Trying to initiate a smile and keeping eye contact are also a nice and polite way to approach Thais. As Thai people prefer passivity to activity, it is advisable to test the situation with a smile, a soft laugh and a phrase of mai pen rai kha/khrup (‘it’s ok/never mind’) rather than speaking loudly with wild body gesture.
Manners: Thai people are taught to maintain their appropriate manners from a young age and showing good manners implies good family background and social and financial status.
Complaining: this one is what foreigners are famous for. Thais seldom openly complain (certainly about poor standards) as it means confrontation and gives the potential for loss of face. Their solution is to quietly put up with things and find alternatives. Unfortunately, this has engendered a culture of poor standards and lack of improvement, and visitors are often intolerant and respond by simply raising their voice, kicking up a fuss and getting worked up. It will have little effect really, as Thais simply don’t know how to respond to criticism other than to get embarrassed, smile and try to avoid the issue.
Thai cultural behaviour and etiquette are quite complicated and it is almost impossible for those who weren’t born and raised here to have a complete understanding of this complexity. This can create some frustration for foreigners who are new to the country, but if you try to adapt yourself – even ever so slightly – Thai people will appreciate this and give you more respect and credit.