Long, long ago..okay, about 5 years ago…in a galaxy not so far away, I used to write a column for The Nation’s Femme for Women magazine called West of Campus. It was about life as a Thai student in America, sharing experience and advice about adapting to new culture and how-to guides.
After revisiting my archive site today, it seems to me that some of the pieces could be reverse engineered to fit for foreigners coming to Thailand. In a true Hollywood spirit, I will do a remake of West of Campus here exclusively for Thai-Blogs!
Here’s the first one of the West of Campus: Revisited series.
THE SPACE BETWEEN
My girl friends and I do hold hands back in Thailand. We hug each other even. We hold hands with our family members. But all of that touching is for family and people we know well. We don’t really go up and touch strangers for no reason. Well, except for Songkran, I guess.
I thought I had a good idea of what it would be like to live in America, having been exposed to the more touchy-feely Western cultures before I arrived in the US from years of traveling abroad solo. I knew that I would be shaking hands. I knew some stranger is bound to give me a hug and dreaded that moment. I even expected a few pecks on the cheeks as greetings.
Eventually, I got used to all the touchy feely things. I actually am quite fond of giving hugs and getting them. Ask around.
As I went on to college, I found that the concept of personal space is one of the many concepts categorized under nonverbal communications. It is a subject which people study seriously! Verbal language can be picked up and learned more quickly than the nonverbal cues like body language, gestures, and facial expressions. Personal space and physical contact are the two most prominent and hardest to adjust to of all other nonverbal cues.
What it is: Personal space (Proxemics) is the comfortable distance between one person to the other when they talk, stand, sit, or walk. This personal space concept varies from culture to culture. It is a bit difficult to get used to or to adapt to. Westerners seem to prefer more space between themselves and others. American average personal space is about 3 feet. In Thailand, and Asia in general, our concept of personal space is about 1-2 feet.
Besides, by leaving too much space between you and the person in front of you in Thailand, you might as well yell out “Feel free to cut in line in front of me!”
If you do a little bit of people-watching in a food court somewhere, you will notice the space a foreigner would stay at least one full step behind the person in front, while our native Thai would be about half a step away.
What to do: Understand the concept and try not to be too annoyed or angry with the person behind you in line creeping up on you. Or getting a little too close to comfort on the BTS. (Well, that is also for safety concern for your wallet and belonging. We’re not a crime-free country after all.) And, oh yes, expect someone to cut in your line at least once during your stay.
What it is: Physical touch (Haptics) in Western culture is definitely different from what we’re used to in Thailand, and you know it. Physical touch goes from a hearty handshake, a salutary hi-fives, to a big hug. As I mentioned earlier, Thais are not all that comfortable with touching strangers. We’ll stand really close to one, but not really touching.
Physical touch between men and women is also a, forgive the pun, touchy subject. Public display of affection is inappropriate. Hand holding, you can get away with that quite a bit. Hugging and kissing: forget about it! Sure, you’ll see someone do it out there. But hey, trust me. Get a room.
What to do: You can still offer to shake hands with Thai folks. But don’t be surprise if they don’t have that firm grip you’ve come to expect. Ditto with a weak, “Um…okay I guess I’ll hug them” hesitating hug.
When I went home the first few times, it took my friends by surprise that I came running to them with open arms, hugging everybody. We’re friends, but we never really use hugging as a greeting. Eventually, I think hugging caught on. It was me who was surprised with a few friends opened their arms first on my last trip home.
The golden rule of nonverbal communications is to observe and adjust. Both parties have to adjust to each other communication patterns in order to converse effectively, from tone of voice to body positioning.
You are doing a little bit of observing of Thai cultures right now, parusing Thai-Blogs. Take our words as your guide, and do a little people watching, not just sightseeing, and you’ll find your experience in Thailand a lot more enjoyable than spending hours in cultural frustration.