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. πŸ™‚

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? πŸ˜‰

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,


12 responses to “Working with Thais successfully

  1. that’s a useful one! looking forward to the next bit.
    strange thing is, I had the impression while reading it, that this is not so different from Hungary. “don’t criticise, don’t ask, don’t correct.” keep your head low and try to protect yourself because you can only count on yourself. if you ask too much or correct your boss or have different opinions and let alone new brilliant ideas all the time, you’ll be out in the street without a job sooner than you realise what’s going on. but it’s not respect or keeping face, rather going with the flow (flock?) and fear of being considered a wise-guy, a pain in the back, or the stupid greenie who takes it too seriously. even in a research environment, not just in some boring inefficient office.
    it’s just amazing that there’s something completely different in the background.

  2. SiamJai that is one that has really lightened a very stressful week for me. You are so lucky that you spent so much time soaking up the culture like a sponge, especially after attending a University in the States, where you are looked down upon for not taking these steps.

    Great blog post, make the next one longer, hell make it a novel if you can keep it that entertaining.

  3. What u wrote is to a certain extent true. However, I think it’s the same everywhere in the world, if a person is interrupted or corrected while talking, he/she would feel offended. The case in Thailand is more about respect and being proper rather than no freedom of speech or acts. The culture is so rich that people behave properly. I feel that the western world is rather rude in boasting about their own abilities and only saving themselves (much like every man for himself). The culture in asia is different, ppl. help each other and maximize unity. by such, everyone is happy in their environment, in this case, work place. it is not about who steps over who to get a promotion, it’s about who is good enough to deserve it. there is no need to express everything, b/c in reality, those that deserve respect, are those that that don’t say much. They are the ones that observe the flaw of others and act accordinly to improve that status for everyone. It’s just a whole different philosophy over there.

  4. I agree with Siam jai and I also quite agree with Joe. (My mental test shows that my brain is in the centre!!! not left aligned or right. LOL) But what Siam Jai says about the thais is what many expats say about Indians in my company. And I am not very sure of it. There is a danger in mixing up culture and circumstances. I think if it comes to professional life its better to consider the circumstances as to why people behave the way they do. And then work to make it easy for people to open up.

    For instance, in India, I see many MNCs catering to views as Siam Jai mentioned. It works fine. But the Indian companies which are professional are breaking all ‘perceived’ barriers and getting more and more open and modern in human management & productive! In the end the locals are developing quicker in the good local companies versus the careful MNCs!!

    However, the local ‘good & professional’ companies are doing it in a very wholesome manner – different from totally adopting the aggresive style of an amercian company.

    Of course, I notice extremes in the way MNCs from various parts of the world behave. The US and UK based companies are too restless in ensuring justice and fairness and rather mess up in my mind.

    However, the Scandanavian companies are more down to earth, not judgemental, and very activity oriented. They are more bothered about how they behave as to how others do!!

    The Japanese are the most interesting. They are absolute task masters. They do not care much about the local scene and are fixed upon the task in hand. And will cut most barriers to achieve it!! As an asian country they have an advantage in getting away with it. (except maybe in China). We think we have to learn from them!!

    The Koreans are the most difficult. Because they go to beyond the point where the Japanese stop!!

    Just my personal perceptions. Generalisations, which I will gladly take back in many an specific examples.

  5. This is a great point of subject and i can think of loads other nitty-gritty in office cultural differences.

    If you even begin to comprehend the differences and mentatility of Thais in these aspects then you’ll never be without a job in Thailand.

    ‘Hai Kiart’, as in to honour/respect etc.. could well go right to the top of the list in dos and donts/working in Thailand.

    I would say that constructive criticism is all right in some regards. BUT you’ll will certainly have had to got your foot well inside the door first and become nicely acquainted with your elders. On the other hand take the advice of Siamjai and keep quiet.

    Most foreigners though and especially farang are unable to adapt well to this and within just a couple of weeks of settling into a job are already voicing their opinions like some trade union guy.

    I knew an American teacher at an old school of mine who completely messed-up within his first month of the job and eventually lost his job (mentioned way back in an old blog of mine). On seeing a mistake or two on a grade 12 exam paper written by the head of english he took the opportunity to tell all the students ‘What a crappo exam paper”. Of course, that’s pretty insulting to do in the west let alone in Thailand and he made his boss completely lose face.

    I noticed a few tense errors in his lesson plans but i didnt bother go telling everyone around, instead i spoke to him quietly on the side about his mistakes.

    Anyway i’d like to see more written on the subject.

  6. Substitute “Thai” with “Asia” , and your comment above is still valid in general.

  7. Yesterday, my boss and demi-boss interviewed a candidate who would become my supervisor. She’s a young Asian lady. My demi-boss asked me if I think she’d be a good leader, and that she’d stand up to the big boss.

    I don’t know if I could tell how “American” she is, but if she’s brought up in an Asian household, there will always be the deep-rooted respect for authority and desire to safe face and avoid confrontation.

    The demi-boss nods. But yeah. Asians. Our disgruntled selves stay well hidden, away from the bosses.

  8. Thank you for the comments. πŸ™‚

    Betti, your words made me aware of the sorry situation there again. The ones who really want to give an input have to put up with the cynical scorn of the rest. Who there wasn’t tempted by the more peaceful, ‘go with the flow’ attitude? “Nem szol szam es nem faj fejem“…

    Stacker, thanks for the nice words, the encouragement. πŸ™‚ Actually, in American the reason they looked down on me was different. I enjoyed the productive, straight-to-the-point debates that made uni life a quality time… the troubles started when my refusal to indulge in the decadent lifestyle of the majority resulted in my virtual exclusion from the group. Sad, really, but that’s a topic for another day.

    Joe, I don’t know if you have been in Thailand’s business/academic sector… your description reminds me of the idealistic expectations I had before I had any real experience in the matter. “it is not about who steps over who to get a promotion, it’s about who is good enough to deserve it. I wish it were so! But backstabbing and competition is the name of the game over here just as well as in Farangland – only perhaps not so shamelessly displayed.

    Trangam, what you say about such attitudes around the world is really interesting! I’m not such a world traveler, so I’ll take your word for it. πŸ™‚ It’s also nice to see that the more daring local companies are faring better than the careful multinationals. This American-style attitude may be horribly wrong in a social sense, but it works wonders in science (and I guess in business too)! πŸ™‚

  9. Hi Steve, thanks for the input. πŸ™‚
    Yes, I didn’t realize that this subject is such a Pandora’s Box, until I opened it. Now I have so many ideas to write about in this matter, that I will have to open a new folder to keep everything neat! πŸ˜‰

    I’d like to see the opinion and corrections from people like you and Richard, with plenty of experience in the field of working with Thais successfully.

    Smiaw, I’m not sure if we can assume such a broad generalization. Trangam’s experience suggests that the “American” approach is gaining wider and wider acceptance in Asian circles. πŸ™‚

    Hi Oakley, nice to see you here! πŸ™‚ You turned the tables again, lol. I didn’t think about this from the Asian-in-America perpective; there must be some kind of a culture clash, and a difficulty to live up to the Western expectation to be opinionated and challenging. However, you seem to have a natural talent (and I mean it as a compliment πŸ™‚ ). Or was it unusual for you at first too?

    I came from pretty much the same background that Betti described (ie. a cynical crowd would drown any contribution), so in the US, I felt like a fish that’s just been released from the glass bowl to the open water! πŸ˜€

  10. Thanks. πŸ™‚

    I guess I kinda drifted away from this subject, being too preoccupied with our own site and blog. Also, the sense of adventure about working in the Thai environment faded as the associated rules and behavior became more and more routine.

    When I’ll have a free afternoon, I’ll sit down and think about the things I did differently in the western work environment, and will share the result with you guys here in a follow-up. πŸ™‚

  11. It would be nice to hear more. Perhaps as you’ve learned more you’ve changed your mind a little on some aspects. Maybe your colleagues actually DO challenge things, but in a more subtle way than an American might?

    It’s a different issue, but we have quite a few foreign students here, mostly Chinese, but all sorts. Asians in general have a reputation for being very quiet, which is often true (not always!) when dealing directly with their teacher, but not when they are in a comfortable situation, where they will argue very vigorously, with each other, at least. Teachers who have not figured this out can go through their entire career complaining about how placid and un-resourceful their foreign students are. A classic self-reinforcing misconception.

  12. I also would like to read a lot more about this subject. Your blog was very good, but i felt that you had so much more to share. The comments were also very enlightening. By all of you sharing your thoughts, it will certainly make it a lot easier for me, as a farang, to adapt to the Thai way.