Written By Ryan Biddulph
I’ve spent over 2 years in Thailand during my 6-year world tour.
Thailand is my favourite country on earth for a number of reasons. The stunning beauty of the place, amazing food, low cost of living and friendly locals all make for a dream destination.
Before visiting the Land of Smiles keep one thing in mind: Thai face-saving culture is likely quite a bit different from how things are done in your home country.
Like all things travel this is not a good or bad thing. It is simply a group of people agreeing to live by a certain code, a code you should learn if you decide to spend time in that area.
Keep these 3 cultural points in mind to enjoy your travels through Thailand
1: Saving Face Is Critical
Thai culture is a face saving culture. Meaning you should never, ever intentionally demean, embarrass or humiliate anyone in a public setting. In a nutshell, be nice. Be courteous. Be polite. Even if you are waiting for 2 hours at immigration, put on a smile.
Is it easy to adjust to a face-saving culture as a new traveller to Thailand when your patience is tested? In most cases, heck no. Even if we don’t regularly abuse each other verbally in Western nations we are accustomed to complaining, whining and starting a verbal tussle or two when we’re having a bad day.
I made the shift by choosing to smile – no matter what happens – and to say “thank you”, or “kop khun krap” in all situations. Over time, the cheeriness of locals and acceptance of the culture grows on you. To the point where you will eventually be living according to the Thai standard of “mai pen rai”, or “whatever happens, happens.” No big deal. Go with the flow. Accept and smile.
2: The Customer Is Not Always Right
In face saving culture it is all about not offending or humiliating anybody. So if you huff and puff and throw a customer service related hissy fit, at best, you will receive a smile and apology. At worst, you will be completely ignored.
You are probably used to “the customer is always right” type service in Western countries. In Thailand, the locals are kind, helpful and polite in all dealings but beyond a certain point, the customer is definitely not always right. I love this mindset. Helps you to face, embrace and let go all business and service related stuff that arises. Enlightening.
I recall one of the first times we flew Air Asia in Thailand. My vegetarian wife ordered a special meal. She received a meat-based meal. After pointing out the situation to the stewardess the kindly woman said “Oh, I am really sorry”, with a sheepish grin, then continued with her work.
Was she supposed to Halo drop 36,000 feet from a plane to prepare and deliver a vegetarian meal to my wife?
All she could do was apologize and move on, knowing how strict vegetarians almost never eat from dishes where the meat was simply removed/scraped off of the plate.
Thai customer service is pleasant, friendly and engaging. They will do their best to help but in some situations where things don’t quite work out the way you want them to work out, be at peace with the fact that folks will not bend over backwards and contort themselves like a gymnast just to make you happy.
3: Don’t Be Offended by Heartfelt Lying
This point is about the toughest to accept for a Westerner like myself. Especially an American Westerner.
In the good old USA, we are more direct and honest in our dealings. Factor in my New Jersey upbringing – where being honest and truthful is even more common – and I had a tough time understanding how Thai face-saving often involves lying to people to avoid disappointing individuals now, only delaying the inevitable disappointment.
Just accept it as not either good, or bad, but simply how it is in Thailand.
Example; someone may promise to meet you for drinks one evening but when the time arrives they do not show up. After 3 subsequent reschedules and no-shows you may think your alleged Thai friend is a real jerk, only to find out from a mutual friend that they hate to drink but didn’t want to offend you by telling you this.
When you learn to see the lie is not meant to offend but rather to be nice it helps to embrace a custom you may see as weird, or outright rude, or thoughtless in your culture so you can gracefully glide through the concept of “heartfelt lying” with a smile.