Daily Archives: September 23, 2005

Working with Thais successfully

Kansas is saying goodbye…
If you plan to work in Thailand, ask anyone who has done it, and they will likely tell you that it’s a whole different world. Some curse it, others praise it. If you are lucky, you may start out in a “sheltered” environment, with plenty of expat colleagues to help you, or a veteran expat who acts as a liaison officer, a “buffer zone” between you and the Thais. Makes a tremendous difference, I tell you!

However, sooner or later you may find yourself dealing directly with Thai colleagues: co-workers, bosses and perhaps even subordinates. If you look around on various expat forums, you’ll see communities full of people complaining about how impossible it is to be productive in the Thai work environment. What’s more likely is that they failed because they applied the same standards that got them results in the West.

The secret
There are some things that are done fundamentally differently in the Thai workplace. Foreigners who were willing to learn a few simple rules and adapt to the local customs are known to achieve the results they want, in a productive environment – to the envy and puzzlement of the complainers.

In this blog entry I would like to share with you a few pointers that I learned from life and from other, more experienced people. Learn and follow these to produce a successful, productive cross-cultural working environment that’s actually fun. 🙂

A disclaimer: although most expats are working as teachers in Thailand, I’m not covering this area. Richard and Steve already wrote excellent guides about how to get results in the classroom. I’ll focus primarily on the academic environment, but these tips are also applicable to the business setting – or to any work environment where you have to cooperate with Thai colleagues on the professional level.

The value of face
As you might already know, Thais give extraordinary importance to feelings and the outside appearance. What fewer people know is that this manifests itself not only in clothing and nice words, but behavioral patterns as well. This leads to a number of misunderstandings between foreign and Thai staff.

ให้เกียรติ (hai-kiat) is a Thai word for giving proper respect. Let’s say that you are in a meeting or a seminar. Your boss is having a speech, and makes a blunder. In the West, you’d raise your hand, and correct the boss immediately. People around you would be impressed that you pay attention, know the subject, are keen and think quickly. This is what we’ve all seen since school, right?

Well, if you do this in a Thai meeting, all you do is earn a reputation as being “mai hai kiat”, a disrespectful bore. What you should do instead, is keep down the urge to appear smarter than everyone else, and wait until the meeting is over. If you still feel that the matter needs clarification, talk with the boss privately, advise him/her politely about the mistake, and let him publicly correct himself. Although the others won’t know that it was you who knew it better, the boss will likely think better of you, and let’s be honest: which one is more important? 😉

The same rule applies if the speaker is your colleague, although to a lesser extent. Generally, avoid verbal confrontation, even if it’d be perceived productive in the West. Motto: In Thailand there is no such thing as “constructive criticism”.


The Western package
This was quite difficult for me to accept, because in the American academic environment, we researchers are strongly encouraged to openly and aggressively question everything. I can recall several instances where I was praised when I posed a well-thought question openly to my lab supervisor, or even to the dean. Instructors often start their courses by saying that they welcome questions, no matter how simple those questions may appear. Motto: there is no such thing as a stupid question.

Such attitude will be a burden that’ll make your working life difficult here in Thailand. Leave it at the airport.

Back to the basics
Following general Thai customs of good behaviour may also let you hai-kiat, and you already know most of them; keep your head lower than that of your seniors/superiors, don’t use your feet to open doors and to point with, keep your voice down, etc.

Pandora’s box
Looks like this subject is larger than I thought. There are plenty of other points, but I don’t want to bore anyone with a book-long manual disguised as a blog, so I’ll cut it short here. Look for another installment on Working with Thais soon. Also, feel free to post any questions below, and I’ll answer them if I can.

Greetings from Chiang Mai,