Thai People

There have been books written about Thai people and how to deal with them in personal and business realms. In this article, I will keep it to just a few pages.

Of course, not all Thai people are the same, so it would be nonsense to say that all Thai people are one way or another. In this article I describe the average or typical Thai person, and the tendencies of the culture relative to others in the world. Nonetheless, there are always exceptions and all sorts.

There are variations in Thai culture depending on where you are -- in a suburban community vs. in an expat go-go bar, in an office, in the country, and which region of Thailand. The variations are not great, except if you go to the go-go bars (where they tend to be quite crude, aggressive, mercenary, selfish, and greedy, albeit less than equivalent places in other countries, so I hear).

The values and traits of Thai people include the following, though in city business, things can vary a lot more:

  • Relaxed, not in a hurry about anything, cannot be hurried
  • Polite interaction, pleasant
  • Gentle and sensitive
  • Family, friends, community and good food are most important
  • Being happy is important for many of them
  • Have fun ("sanuk") is common in entertainment areas, but different upcountry, much toned down
  • Avoid conflict, keep your cool, don't lose your temper, think things thru
  • In case of conflict, stay cool and reasonable, and compromise
  • Follow the authority(s) -- much more ingrained than in critical thinking western cultures, moreso in older Thais
  • Conform fairly well, but many risk bending the rules when seemingly benign, to just get things done
  • Tolerate different kinds of people
  • Don't like to kill anything, not even bugs and pests, unless to eat

Some people think they can come to Thailand and throw money around to get Thai people to do things. Sure, you can find some Thai people like that. However, it will be a much lower percentage than in other countries, and the results may not be the same. In tourist entertainment areas, money has much more power in manipulating people quickly that it does in business and upcountry.

Forcefulness and ruling by fear have even less longterm results than in other parts of the world. Notably, Thais are very good at cooperating with each other to cover up things from the boss and avoiding confrontation.

Thais don't tend to be self-starters or very creative people (except at humorous things). There aren't many inventions in the world from Thailand. While some products are improved here, many others are just made more cheaply which includes cutting corners on quality.

Discipline must be maintained in a workplace. What tends to work best is constant auditing whereby they know they are being audited, and a little bit of fear of the big boss. Not too much fear or they will go crazy and leave, but not too much fear or "when the cat's away, the mice will play." Be firm, yet polite. To be respectable, you should be respectful.

If confrontation is necessary, it is extremely important to do it in private, not in front of other people. Thais are much more sensitive to "saving face", which is much more important in Thai culture than in European descended cultures. It's important everywhere, but much more important with Thais.

If you learn the language, then you will learn the "polite particles" in the Thai language for which no equivalent exists in Western society. (Learning the Thai language and customs is a good way to learn the culture.)

Thai culture is fairly homogenous, compared to many other countries and regions of the world. It is remarkable that the Thai language is the native language of the indigenous people over such a large country, approximately 1500 km by 500 km. (In fact, the Lao (Laos) language is very similar to the Thai language, using essentially the same written characters and most of the same words. The Thai language also extends into the southernmost edge of China.)

The "religion" is Buddhism (and there has never been a war or fighting over Buddhism), which over 90% of Thais call themselves. The main exception is in the small southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia which are predominantly Muslim.

The homogeneity of Thailand's culture and language has contributed to the peaceful and smooth nature of Thai people.

Thai Names

Thais are given a nickname by their family at a very young age, and this is what family, friends, and familiar associates call each other. This name is NOT a legal name, and does not exist in official or legal paperwork.

Thais are given a legal first name and surname at birth, but no middle name. When you first know a Thai person in an office or other fairly formal setting, then you address them as Khun [Firstname]. Later, this may switch to their nickname.

However, in very informal settings, Thai people will introduce themselves by their nickname only, and you may never know their real name unless you ask.

The nicknames are usually one syllable words though some are two syllable and sometimes three. Their translations mean silly things like "shrimp", "baby chicken", "eyes", "gift", and lots of other things.

Regional Differences

There are some slight regional differences between Thai people as they see each other.

Thais from the northwest are seen as the most compassionate and peace loving.

Thais from the northeast are the poorest on average, and tend to be the most resilient as well as the best labor pool for unpleasant jobs. A very large percentage of Thais in the northeast are historically recent decendents of Lao people, whereby the area is a merge between Lao (Laotian) and Thai culture. Many Lao words are spoken within Thai sentences there, and if you get into the countryside, the informal lanuguage becomes much more "Lao". It's actually called "Isan" language, which is the proper word to use instead of "Lao", but the word Isan was introduced in the latter part of the 1800s when the French were planning to annex Lao and threatening to take what's now northeastern Thailand, so the Thai authorities officially changed the name of the region to the non-Lao name "Isan" (and instituted a lot of other quick measures to instill "Thai" there...).

Thais from the south (down the western peninsula) tend to be more independent minded and a bit more assertive. This is a long coastline and you can see in their features that there is a lot of immigrant blood in them. Similar things can be said about parts of the southeast, but the southeast is a small part of the population.

Bangkok is populated mostly by people from all over Thailand who came to Bangkok for work or higher education.

In the big city of Bangkok, Thais tend to be much less community oriented, like people in any big city in the world. There are very significant differences between city people and country people in Thailand, but in informal settings, you can see a lot of their ethnic nature.

Chinese Thais

There have been many Chinese immigrants over the past few hundred years. Many Thai families have Chinese blood in them. In most of them, you cannot see any cultural difference; nonetheless, in MANY partly or wholly "Chinese Thai" families there is a MAJOR difference between them and mainstream Thais.

The Thai culture and gene pool largely came from waves of Tai immigrants out of southern China. These are not considered "Chinese". Going as far back in time as we can in studying the branching of languages and DNA, we can see that the Tai people are originally from what's now southern China and along the borders with Vietnam and Lao, and migrated into parts of northern Myanmar and northeastern India. However, they are not significantly related to other Chinese ethnic groups except some merging in southern China. The mountains of southern China were one factor in this, being natural barriers. It was the expanding Chinese empires from the 700s to the 1200s, and Mongol invasions, which drove waves of Tais south, those choosing not to fight nor to endure. (Many Tais did fight and die at the hands of the expanding Chinese and Mongol empires, but I would guess that the local gene pool is mainly those who avoid fighting my choosing migration instead.) This is discussed in the section on Thai history, but for here, I mainly want to make a big distinction between Tai/Lao and "Chinese".

Most Chinese came to Thailand due to crop failures in China or just looking for better opportunities overseas, and so many arrived destitute. Most of the immigrants actually didn't leave offspring, but many did survive and thrive here based on sheer effort and smarts.

A large subset of surviving Chinese immigrants have created descendants instilled with a strong work ethic and who value education. When you look at the top people in the banks, business, and society, you will see a disproportionate percentage of Chinese Thais.

It is a nice blend of work ethic, education, and pleasant Thai ways.

There are some interesting studies about why Thailand has achieved a relatively high per capita income for the Asian region, and modernity with good infrastructure, compared to other countries, despite the fact that Thailand was the only country in the region never colonized.

One of the most interesting analyses is that it's because the Thai people were much more tolerant of immigrants, and readily assimilated them into Thai society, rather than the usual tribal ways of bigotry, xenophobia, resistance and overly nationalistic laws against immigrants. The old Thai kings especially fostered the assimilation of immigrants.

(Of course, the United States did likewise in the 1700s. Also, 2500 years ago, Rome was originally a low class poor town in Italy, but was known as the most tolerant and hospitable town for immigrants.)

Chinese Thais who are descended from Chinese immigrants generally identify as "Thai", not as "Chinese". They also tend to identify as "Chinese Thai" but the vast majority consider that a much weaker identification than "Thai".

Pure Thais are generally known for being gentle, polite, tolerant, and hospitable. This hospitality extends into the present time, which is a major reason why Thailand is a favored destination for tourists and businesspeople alike. This includes myself, who has travelled around Asia and settled down in Thailand! I find the native culture interesting and nice, especially upcountry, but the cities and their suburbs are much more popular due to their conveniences and more international standards of living.

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