Hi-lo Society in Thailand

We talk a lot in these blogs and on the forums about how the farang (white faced foreigners) should adapt their thoughts and lifestyles in order to fit in with Thai society. The temptation of newcomers is somehow to “modernize” some of the Thai ways of life which they deem to be antiquated or demeaning. I must admit I have been guilty of doing this myself. I remember my early days of teaching when the students would come up to my desk on their knees or bow their body as they walked past me. I was quite shocked and uncomfortable about the level of deference they were showing me. I tried to get them to stop. I thought I was liberating them, but I only ended up watering down Thai culture so it became a mish-mash of Thai and Western cultures.

Now I understand more than ever how important it is to preserve Thai culture from the influences of the West. Things that might work in your home country just won’t work here. The Thai culture is too deeply ingrained into their way of life. So, these days, I let the students get onto their knees when they ask permission to come back into the classroom. I allow them to stand up and say thank you to me at the end of my lessons. I understand now that the students are not necessarily showing respect to me personally, but to the position I hold. Teachers in Thai society are given a lot of respect. In my local community, a parent would tell their child to wai me even if they don’t go to my school. They are paying respect to my profession, and as a teacher I need to act accordingly. I feel I have a responsibility to my fellow teachers not to let them down.

Having said that, you do see some Thai people abusing their position of power. They know that people should pay them the greatest amount of respect and they don’t seem to care whether they deserve it or not. Like any society around the world, you will find Thailand full of contradictions which will confuse newbies. I am going to finish my blog today with a final extract from the excellent book “Thailand Fever”. At the bottom of this blog I will let you know how you can win yourself a copy of this book!

High and Low: Superiors and Inferiors

How does it make you feel when someone is showered with respect simply because of his age, his job title, the wealth he inherited, or the family into which he was born? If you are like most Westerners, you probably won’t feel that he deserves any respect from you unless you get to know him and find that he actually did something himself to deserve it.

How about when your boss at work, your teacher at school, a police officer, or your mother-in-law at home talks down to you, excludes you, or ignores what you say? Unless you’re in the military, it probably annoys you whenever someone acts as if they are higher than you. It may even make you uncomfortable when someone else bows down and “kisses up” to you.

These scenarios, which Westerners like us might sum up with the negative terms, “blind respect” and “rank pulling,” are perfectly normal to a Thai. In fact, many Thais believe they are part of a natural and beneficial system that holds society together.

Like it or not, the Thai universe is fundamentally hierarchical. Every person assumes a rank in that universe relative to other people or categories of people, albeit a fluid rank. From a very young age, Thais are raised to show gestures of respects to anyone in a higher category. For example, you bow to parents, older family members, teachers and monks – even ones you don’t know – as a way to honour their role in raising their children, imparting knowledge, teaching morals, or otherwise contributing to society.

This sense of hierarchy is ingrained in Thai culture. The theme of “high” and “low”, “superior” and “inferior,” pervades the language and culture. It comes naturally to Thais, but you are going to have to get used to it, as it affects how you should treat your partner’s family members, your servants, and even your children.

Source: “Thailand Fever” by Chris Pirazzi and Vitida Vasant

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Next weekend, we will be announcing the name of one lucky reader who will be receiving a copy of Thailand Fever. The competition is kindly sponsored by Thai Hypermarket. All you have to do is answer this simple question:

QUESTION: What does “nam jai” mean in English?

Send your answer to my email address by next Friday.

18 responses to “Hi-lo Society in Thailand

  1. Super Farang

    I try to encourage my Thai students to eat at Mcdonald’s and Pizza hut all the time. I mean rice is crap. Don’t they serve rice in prisons? I am glad I am glad to be free!!!!! Instead of in a Heirarchy PRISON.

  2. I think it is perfectly alright to encourage the Thai students to eat at McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. However, most of these eateries are associated with Western menu. What I hope to see in these franchises is to include some Thai specialities such as those I saw in Paris or HongKong where they have their own menu.
    As for having rice as food, the Thais consider rice as the main staple food as the country produces the greatest amount of rice in the world. They simply love rice in any form!
    Back in my country, it is similar. We import about 95% of the rice from Thailand.
    The Chinese has a saying “A single grain of rice can feed a thousand people (nationality!)”

  3. Superfarang,

    You should stop eating that terrible garbage put out by Mcdonald’s and the lot or you’ll end up looking like a sick ole’ American glutton with little beady eyes recessed in the folds of your big fat head.

    Pizza Hut does have a salad bar I suppose and Mcdonald’s offers the odd vegetable for you to stuff into your pie-hole, so perhaps its not all bad.

    As for this hierarchy business, until I have to prostrate myself in front of the laundry woman to pick up my clean undies I won’t be too worried!

  4. Richard,

    I, too, have been in similar positions when I have seen acts of blind deference in Thai society and in Thailand itself. I, as an American (we take comfort in our ability to empower everyone), had the gut reaction to try to correct this, or to show or voice some type of token outrage.
    I now know that this is not what should be called the higher road. I applaud you, Richard, for recognizing that it is not wrong for the children to do as what has been ingrained in them through many generations in their culture.
    Maybe (I think more than “maybe”) that is what is wrong with American schools. We in the US are so afraid to trample on the delicate flower that is the student psyche that we coddle them to the point of delinquency and indolence. They sneer at the thought of applying themselves; they scoff at the idea of being challenged to do better. Misguided parents often wield huge amounts of power. I sit back and thank whomever that I went through American schools before a lot of this nonsense was implemented.
    This rant may not be totally on track to what you have written, but a certain element touched a nerve with me. Thank you, kind sir, for providing me a forum from which I may vent.


  5. How does it make you feel when someone is showered with respect simply because of his age, his job title, the wealth he inherited, or the family into which he was born?

    I don’t really think all these examples are the same things. I think the respect to your elders and to those based on their job title (teachers, monks etc…) is a good thing in Thailand, and it’d be nice if we had more of that in the West IMO.

    But for people to condemnded to have an low sense of self-worth and limited opportunities in life because they didn’t inherit enough, or their skin is too dark, well I think it’s just wrong and is pretty much condemning the poorest in society to stay there. I don’t think it’s fair, and leads to the rich, powerful and well connected being able to get anyway with anything (e.g. the Duangchalerm Yoobamrung case) because the poorer just don’t feel they can possibly challenge them successfully. I don’t believe the fact that this is status quo is popular in Thailand either (well, except amongst the rich and well-connected) – after all, (arguably) Thailand’s most popular singer Sek from Loso said his band’s name was “a f**k you to Thailand’s status obsessed culture.”

  6. BTW, for anyone who doesn’t know about the Duangchalerm case :

    Background – http://www.economist.com/surveys/PrinterFriendly.cfm?Story_ID=998338
    Eventual verdict – http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/3572395.stm

  7. I just finished the book, Thailand Fever, it really does help me understand Thailand from another perspective. The comments on this post, in the blog, are interesting. Somehow we relate deference to low self esteem, I do not think that is true, because of my reading, deference is related to being part of the culture and the tradition of Thailand and reflects being a member of the culture and the tradition, being a part of the whole community. Deference is not to the person, individually, but to the role that person has in the community. On the other hand injustice and exploitation can also result from deference, people accepting the unacceptable. It seems though that standing up against what is wrong and deference might be two distinct reactions and they are not necessarily related.

  8. I don’t really think all these examples are the same things. I think the respect to your elders and to those based on their job title (teachers, monks etc…) is a good thing in Thailand

    Perhaps they are not the same thing, Mike, but I think they have lots in common. The authors put them under the same category perhaps because these are all superficial values. One is old, so what? Escaping the Grim Reaper longer than others did doesn’t automatically gain my respect. After all, he could be an old perv; she could be a mean old witch.

    Job titles? Again, I’ve known, and I’m sure you do too, folks holding “respectable” positions, but lacking the ethical values to live up to expectations. It’d be a folly to give my respect simply based on a piece of paper or orange robe.

    All in all, none of these qualities show the true personality of the human you are prostrating in front of. They are just as superficial as wealth and family connections.

    Furthermore, if someone earns your respect because of a hi-so position, what about an intelligent and honest manual worker who didn’t have the money and connections to become a doctor? See, it all comes together, under one huge category of superficial values.

    When I meet people, my “respect-meter” is on neutral. When I get to know them, it will change according to where their personality falls on my scale. It’s not foolproof, but I think it’s more reliable than any of the above guidelines.

    Of course, living in Thai society, I may feign respect when social pressure calls for it. And I know for fact that Thais do it that way as well. To old, rich, influential – even royal.

    It’s not at all what it looks on the surface.

  9. In the United States independence and standing up against authority are deeply felt values, heck look at the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and Rosa Parks, our societies values are defined by people who do not defer to authority. I think of Bob Marley, “Get Up Stand Up” as an anthem to progress and self-realization. Deference is such a potent experience from a person from the United States, it somehow crystallizes fundamental cultural differences. There is a lot to learn. I guess for a person who is part of the Thai culture that deference does not carry the cultural background that it does from person from the United States. It is hard to imagine not “being independent”. It is hard to imagine not being “individual” These values are so deep it is like breathing the air.

  10. Right, I basically agree with you SiamJai. I agree that job title is a from perfect indicator, and there are many exceptions, but it’s a reasonable starting point when you’ve nothing else to go on in my opinion. I object much less to having to show respect to a monk or teacher because of their title, say, than having to show respect to someone like Duangchalerm because he’s got a rich father and drives a Mercedes. So I have to say I don’t regard this in the same category as how much someone inherited, how much their father earns or what colour their skin is in the superficialty stakes.

    As for age, I don’t mean respecting people in general just because they’re older, but it seems to me the way kids here are taught to respect parents, older relatives etc… does generally make for nicer people. Whether it’s right they should have to do this, I agree it’s debatable, but still I think I prefer it this way.

    Of course, living in Thai society, I may feign respect when social pressure calls for it. And I know for fact that Thais do it that way as well. To old, rich, influential – even royal.

    This must be pretty much all the time then – every ‘wai’ done or ‘khrab’ said to someone you don’t yet really know. Interesting about Thais faking it as well, that’s my impression too but I wonder to what extent it goes i.e. how much is done out of real respect and how much out of social constraints.

    —- Off topic
    Richard, as there’s no edit button for the comments, could we have a preview button please?

  11. I thought superfarang was being sarcastic! So I didn’t take his comment seriously but man, poor him and poor student if he wasn’t.

    About superior and inferior, I think it is human nature…you have that in Western society too. Esp. with rank and job title.
    let’s say…physicians and nurses and nurses and care-aides…every country you see this.

    The trick is you know who’s the head (who’s the neck)…but you also know that the head cannot be turn if the neck’s not there.

    If you’re being respected, act so accordingly. Don’t act childish when childrean gave you respect to “wai” you. It’s like a friendly reminder too.

    I am personally very proud of being Thai who respect elders, teachers, parents and pooyai relatives…..
    The gesture we show or the respect we give them is different from
    the thing we gave to just a higer rank people…

    เคารพนับถือ (kao-rob, nub-teu) is for pooyai and teachers or someone you really do respect.

    but for those higer rank you just being ¹Íº¹éÍÁ (nob-nom) … being humble or some sort. But in your heart you know if you really do “kao-rob, nub-teu” them or not.

    It’s always good to be humble…
    and it’s always bad for those who are irrogant and ignorant at the same time.

  12. Mike: I think the word “lo so”
    or “hi so” in Thailand is misused.
    People think of the terms based on “socioeconomical status” only.

  13. When I was a young man I always used to feel that respect had to be earned not given. Now that I’m an old man I feel that in giving respect you in turn earn respect. Those people who cannot return what is given reveal their character quickly and it has cost me nothing.

  14. It may seem superficial on the surface – I agree, Siam Jai. However, isn’t it the title you are paying respect to and not the person directly? It seems to me that when someone ‘wai’ a teacher, they may do so because they respect that position in society, not necessarily the person herself. It’s true that in doing this they are also showing respect towards the person herself, and while this teacher may not deserve respect, at least the fact they serve in this respectable role means they are deserving of at least some of the respect you give to it. I find it touching and admirable that respect is given to teachers, monks and elders. Even if this person was completely terrible at being a teacher and cared nothing for students – do you think it’s worth it to ‘wai’ to them anyway? If not for the person, then at least for the position.

  15. Richard Smith

    The basis for my return to Thailand is because of what already exists there ( a kind and respectful society)…not to change it!

  16. Hayley Keen


    I have used a quote form this site for an assignmnet Iam doin, i have recognised you in this assignment, and i thought Id just let you know i was using your work.

    Yours Truly

    Hayley Keen
    Moreton Bay college Year 11

  17. There are descriptions to add into Matana”s respect. First is Su-Pap. It means being polite to people and “treat other the way you want to be treated”

    Another is a way of appreciation to those who give or doing you a favor.
    I respected my teacher because they gave my knowledge not because their personality, age, or social status.
    I respected my grand parents and my parents because they gave my life not because their age. Every birthday, I call my parents to thank them for giving my wonderful life.
    I”wai” a monk because I thought I paid respect to the “Buddha”, just like many Christians do to Jesus or Pope.

    “It’s always good to be humble…If you are in the society that knows you are being Nob Nom or Su-Pap” But if you are in “
    the society with those who are arrogant and ignorant at the same time.”, then it’s bad for being nice and polite because these people are not intelligent as they think they are.

    For many Farangs that act like they know Thais, Sorry to say their thinking is too short and narrow. I learned the Thais basis just like most children. As I get older, I use common sense with education and experiences to judge what is morally right. I know my self worth. I love my life. I have respect for myself and people who earn and deserve my respect.

    I am a Thai who is proud to have my “respect” deep down in my blood. There are many educated Thais that are not just a smart book. They are well aware of the meaning of arrogant, ignorant, self-centered, and individual respect.

    In every society, there are some good and some bad.
    It depends on a person to pick ones that are the most compatible to live with.

  18. From a general point of view, I like to pay respect to every living being, until someone does something to make me think, he or she does not deserve my respect.
    Following someone blindly, I agree, leads only to a suppressed society, however, I cannot not think that by trying to change thai people’s way of thinking is the same as disrespecting them.