In Thailand, common social norms can seem very foreign to visitors. Visiting someone’s home or attending a formal event can seem downright intimidating. The potential for a faux pas can make even a simple social meeting seem like a minefield.
The anxiety many foreign visitors feel becomes even more amplified when they’re in the country to do business, or if they plan to live in a luxury home in Thailand long-term and are meeting neighbours or potential friends for the first time.
LEARN THE BASICS OF THAI CULTURAL CUSTOMS
One of the biggest differences those who grew up in Western cultures will need to familiarize themselves with are the various politeness requirements that are required for social situations with Thai people. The good news is that the basics of these requirements are pretty easy to understand. In fact, once most foreign residents learn the basics, they become guilty of using them too often or in casual situations where they aren’t technically required!
Also, keep in mind that the Thai people are generally very easygoing and tend to be forgiving of basic social faux pas. Because the country is so popular with tourists, most people know that foreigners aren’t always familiar with local cultural norms and may unintentionally break certain social rules, simply because they aren’t aware of what to do.
That said, learning some of the basics will go a VERY long way towards endearing yourself to Thai people – especially if you’re guest in their home. If you attempt to be polite, they’ll appreciate it, but if you master the basic customs, they’ll respect you and be that much more welcoming.
ALWAYS TAKE IT EASY
One of the most basic things that you should understand about Thai cultural customs is that it’s considered very bad form to be confrontational or to even raise your voice… ever. This is a pretty easy social norm for most Western people to follow, as most of them were brought up to be on their “best behavior” when visiting someone’s house or when attending a formal event.
However, this idea also carries over to everyday life. The Thai people believe that if you can keep calm and smile – even when you’re frustrated or arguing about something – you’ll end up much better off than if you resort immediately to displays of anger.
TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES
When you enter someone’s home, it is customary to remove your shoes. Also, take off footwear when entering a temple or shrine. And always, always keep your feet on the floor. Pointing your feet at people – even if you’re only crossing your legs while sitting – is considered rude in most social situations.
Thai people are very laid back, but they also value cleanliness. Trunks, sandals and a tank top are suitable for the beach, but not when you’re visiting someone’s home. You don’t have to have a suit and tie or a dress, but jeans, loafers and a polo shirt or a blouse, skirt and nice shoes are more appropriate when visiting someone’s house or going out. It should go without saying, but being clean shaven and showering beforehand are good ideas as well.
Think of it this way – you’ve been invited to someone’s home, so you’re no longer a tourist. Don’t dress like one! Instead, honor your hosts by showing them that your visit matters enough to you to present yourself well.
WAI, BUT DON’T TOUCH
In Thailand, a wai, a gesture where you place your hand together in a “praying” sign at chest level, is a polite greeting. To show more respect, raise the wai higher, to your chin or nose-level. You will see Thai people doing the wai at forehead level, but this is usually only done at temples or to show a great deal of respect to a monk or an elder.
As a foreigner, you’ll find it helpful to know that you aren’t expected to initiate a wai. However, you are expected to return a wai if somebody gives you one.
Thai people also have a strong idea of personal space. Patting someone on the back or shoulders is considered quite rude, and touching people on the head is considered downright insulting. That said, Thai people familiar with Western culture may offer you a handshake as a greeting. It would be considered rude not to accept this gesture, although you could give a wai after the handshake if it seems appropriate.
RESPECT THE COUNTRY AND THE KING
Thailand actually has lese majeste laws that make it illegal to criticise the king. Even if you’re granted some leniency as a foreigner and don’t end up in jail, it’s considered very bad form to do so. For this reason, it’s probably best not to mention the king at all.
It’s also wise to not criticise Thailand – at least not until you’re on familiar terms with the people you’re socializing with. Political problems and economic issues are noticeable in Thailand, so it is best to avoid these topics during a first meeting.
FIRST NAME BASIS
Unlike in the West, in Thailand it is considered polite to address a person by their first name. Preface the name with the word Khun, resulting in “Khun Joe” or “Khun Sally.”
KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN
Like in many other East Asian countries, the Thai people consider the head to be the most important part of the body. As a result, you don’t want your head to be much higher than someone you want to show respect to. So, for example, if your hosts decide to sit down, you should sit down as well so that you’re not standing over them. Similarly, if you decide to sit down, be aware that your host will also sit down or squat down to keep at your same level.
If there is nowhere to sit, it is acceptable to stand back a little bit and perhaps bend your head forward slightly. This practice is important, but most Thai hosts will invite you to sit if they sit down to prevent putting you in the uncomfortable position of unintentionally committing a faux pas.
Thai culture can seem like a minefield of social no-no’s at first. However, most people here are understanding of foreigners’ unfamiliarity with the norms of Thai society. If you can master some of the basic practices described above, you’ll earn the respect of your Thai friends and be afforded a level of social connection that most tourists never get to enjoy.