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About Thailand

by: Erika Visser, Associate partner of Hofstede Insights

Overview

Currency: Thai Baht                                   
Capital: Bangkok                                            
Time Zone: UTC  +07:00
Official Languages: Thai
Religion: 95% Theraveda Buddhist
Ethnic Make-up: Thai (91.5%); Khmer (2.3%); Malay (2.1); Bamar (1.5%); Karen (0.6%); Chinese (0.4%); Hmong (0.3%); others (1.3%)
Another greatly diverse and friendly nation, sometimes referred to as the ‘land of a thousand smiles’. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, currently led by the military and it is important to understand that all Thai people greatly respect their late king and foreigners are also expected to show respect in this regard. Thailand’s culture is predominantly Thai with about two thirds of ethnic Thais, and it includes cultural influences from China and India. Thai traditions and beliefs are mainly derived from buddhism. As a hierarchical society, respecting the elderly is very important, family is central to Thai life and in general the society is male-dominated, however females are shown respect. Showing anger or negative emotions can bring shame to Thai people, so self-control and respect are essential for successful business relationships.
It can be challenging to understand Thais due to them masking their true feelings, and thus third party contacts are key.

Some cornerstones of Thai culture

Family is central to Thai society, resulting in a great emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly. The family structure provides emotional and financial support with each member contributing their time or money.

When in Thailand

Good to know

  • Never raise your voice or publicly show anger
  • Avoid a public display of affection
  • Dress modestly to avoid offending locals
  • When entering temples or holy places, always cover your shoulders and knees
  • Remove your shoes when you enter someone’s home
  • The head is considered the most sacred part of the body and feet the most dirty  part of the body - never touch the top of someone’s head and never point at someone or sacred figures with your feet
  • Always show the greatest respect for the Thai King and the monarchy
  • Have patience, ‘sabai sabai’ or take it easy; things move slower in Thailand
  • There are 13 Thai smiles, so what you might interpret as a friendly smile might be one of embarrassment. Be sensitive to body language
  • Always be friendly and smile!

Body Language

The head and shoulders are seen as the highest and thus most holy parts of the body and should not be touched. Physically and symbolically the feet are the lowest part of the body, always place your feet on the ground. Never put your feet up on a chair or resting on a table, and avoid placing your feet near someone’s head or face. Always remove your shoes before entering someone’s home and wash your feet if they are dirty. The hands are also important in Thai culture and thus pointing at someone is very rude. Receiving people or objects with your right hand is respectful. When receiving something from an older person, Thais use both hands to show even greater respect.

Dress Code

Dress modestly to avoid offending locals. Usually dress codes are fairly conservative, however, more relaxed in bigger cities. Usually the rule is to cover your shoulders and to wear trousers or skirts covering your knees.
 
Keywords to describe Thai culture: Family / Religion / Harmony / Hierarchy / Relationships / Diversity / Respect / Self-control

 

Expert’s Recommendation

Be patient with Thai counterparts when doing business negotiations. The process is often long and detailed and should not be rushed. Remain polite and demonstrate good etiquette at all times. Elderly Thai business people should be treated with respect and always acknowledged before younger members of the organization. It is important to work with local Thai third-party contacts to get a better insight into the culture and the subtle messages that are portrayed during business interactions. It is not possible from a Western point of view to read these non-verbal messages, which can lead to misunderstandings and potentially embarrass your Thai business partners - most likely ending business relations. Take time to establish productive business relationships with your Thai colleagues. When entering into business dealings with a Thai company, connect via a mutual contact as Thai people prefer to conduct business with familiar connections.

The Concept of Face

Thai culture is deeply rooted in Buddhism with ‘face’ and honour key to understanding everyday behaviour of Thai people. The rigid hierarchy combined with a great respect for authority makes communication quite challenging at times as Thai people will rarely ask for clarification if they have not understood instructions. This attitude is mainly due to Thais striving to maintain face and avoiding shame. Inquiring further about instructions from their boss might indicate that the boss has given incomplete or inadequate information. This attitude is referred to as “greng jai’ and is a concept to give respect and not to disturb others. Thais might also show agreement, even if they don’t really agree, to save face. Challenging authority, singling out an individual from the group, openly criticizing someone, showing anger or refusing a request are other ways to lose face. Face can also be saved by remaining calm and respectful, discussing offenses in private, avoiding placing blame on anyone, avoiding direct communication and through allowing the other person to get out of the situation with their pride intact.

Communication

Thai people mainly rely on nonverbal communication including facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. Nonverbal communication tends to be subtle, indirect and Thais may hint at a point rather than making a direct statement as this may cause the other person to lose face. Rather than say "no", they might say, "I will try", or "I’ll see what I can do". This allows the person making the request and the person turning it down to save face and maintain harmony in their relationship. If you are unsure about the response that you received you could continue the discussion, re-phrasing the question in several different ways so that you may compare responses. Silence is important and pausing before responding to a question indicates that they have given the question appropriate thought and considered their response carefully. Responding to a question hastily can be considered as being rude. As body language is deemed more important than what you say, avoid using rude gestures like putting your hands in your pockets. Self-control is important in public and thus avoid emotional outbursts or using a lot of hand gestures when talking. This can be perceived as immature, a lack of self-control and can erode trust.

Meeting and Greeting

It is not a Thai custom to shake hands when meeting your business counterparts. The most appropriate way to greet your Thai counterparts is the ‘wai’ where you place both hands together and raise them to your forehead with a slight bow or nod. As a foreigner you are not expected to imitate the ‘wai’, a simple smile and nod is acceptable.

Introducing Yourself

Khun (Mr. or Mrs.) is used to precede your name for example Khun John and most Thais will have a western nickname that you can use as their names might be too difficult to pronounce. Business correspondence should always include formal titles and full names, however, in conversations a nickname may be used if it has been offered by your Thai counterpart.

 

Dimensions

Thailand scores 64 on the Power Distance Index, slightly lower than the average for Asian countries (71), which means that Thailand is a hierarchical society with unequal rights between power holders and non-power holders. Leaders have to be paternalistic, caring for staff in the workplace and they should always be aware of issues at home and give guidance when needed. Bosses need to be directive, giving instructions on what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, always checking, inspecting and delegating tasks (not power) ensuring that there are adequate resources and skill to complete tasks within a reasonable timeframe. Without checking and inspecting, staff might not ‘respect’ the task at hand and thus might not complete what they were asked to do. Power is centralized and managers count on the obedience of their team members in return for protection from the power holders. Thai people believe that their supervisors have been chosen because they have more experience and greater knowledge than those they manage and it is therefore, unnecessary, and even inappropriate for them to consult with lower-ranking individuals when making decisions. The manager/boss is expected to make decisions. Titles play an important role and it will help Thai people place their colleagues or counterparts in the hierarchy, allowing them to give appropriate respect to superiors.
 
With a score of 20 Thailand is a highly collectivist country that is organised and centered around relationships (in-groups) rather than tasks. Family is central to Thai society, resulting in a great emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly. Loyalty to the in-group in a collectivist culture is paramount, and overrides most other societal rules and regulations. In order to preserve the in-group, Thais are not confrontational and in their communication a “Yes” may not mean an acceptance or agreement. Communication is indirect and negative feedback hidden, staff do not want the boss to lose face and will share information a boss wants to hear rather than volunteering bad news. “Greng jai’ is a concept to give respect and not to disturb others, this might create an issue as staff might not have a critical thinking attitude and do not want to ask questions. If Thai staff have bad news, they will tell the boss what he or she wants to hear which creates bigger problems in the long-run. A trusting relationship and showing that a boss can patiently receive staff questions, objections and opinions can help to reduce the ‘greng jai’. A boss should create a good working environment; social and business relationships for staff are mostly blurred and thus a boss should avoid competition between staff and create group incentives rather than individual bonuses. The focus should always be on relationships and not the task and time should be invested to strengthen relationships with staff in return for their loyalty. The boss should never single out or embarrass employees as this will erode trust and disrupt the harmony.
 
Thailand scores 34 on the Masculinity dimension and is thus considered a Feminine society. Thailand has the lowest Masculinity ranking among the average for Asian countries of 53 and the World average of 50. This lower level is indicative of a society with less assertiveness and competitiveness, as compared to one where these values are considered more important and significant. In Thailand, status and visible symbols of success, such as good quality clothes, a fancy car or gold jewelry, are important but it is not always material gain that brings motivation, but rather consensus and a good quality of life. Conflicts are resolved by compromise and negotiation. Thais enjoy working together as a team and usually do not enjoy competitive behaviours. Thais can also become jealous if a boss singles out an individual giving them praise or when spending more time with one employee. This can have a negative impact on office morale.
 
Thailand scores an intermediate 64 on the Uncertainty Avoidance dimension, indicating a preference for avoiding uncertainty. In order to minimize or reduce this level of uncertainty, strict rules, laws, policies, and regulations are adopted and implemented. The opinion of experts are important and the ultimate goal of this population is to control everything in order to eliminate or avoid the unexpected. As a result of this high Uncertainty Avoidance characteristic, the society does not readily accept change and is very risk adverse. Change has to be seen for the greater good of the in-group. For meetings: agendas can be used to inform staff what will be discussed and the boss should check staff’s ideas prior to a meeting and discuss and agree what needs to be said during the meeting to eliminate any unknown factors. The boss will be looked to as the expert, making decisions on behalf of the department or office.
 
Thailand's low score of 32 on the Long-Term Orientation dimension indicates that Thai culture is more short-term orientated. People in such societies have a strong concern with establishing the absolute Truth; they are normative in their thinking. They exhibit great respect for traditions, a relatively small propensity to save for the future, and a focus on achieving quick results. When establishing relationships, the focus is on building long-term trusting relationships and not on short-term gain.
 
With an intermediate score of 45 on the Indulgence dimension, a preference on this dimension cannot be determined for Thailand.

For a more detailed analysis on the Cultural Dimensions, and how Thailand compares to other countries, please visit Hofstede Insights’ Country Comparison tool.
 

References & Interesting Links