When you are in Rome, behave like the Romans, they say. When I’m in Thailand, I have learned some lessons. This is a personal list about how to behave in a distant culture in a distant country. I think this list have helped me to understand more about the country of the smiles, and what’s behind all the smiling faces.
How to behave
- Keep smiling. Be a nice person and keep smiling, even if the hotel is not good or the service in the restaurant could be far better. If you are polite, nice and smiling even when you are complaining about something, they will listen and respect you.
- Be relaxed. In my country we stress a lot and are always late. If you take it easy and keep relaxed even when you have a bad day, they will understand you and you might even get some sympathy and nice words. If you are stressed, they will keep distant and keep their mouths shut.
- Learn some Thai words. The Thai language is very difficult to learn for western people. But it’s easy to learn some words and phrases. If you can speak a few words, they will appreciate that you are really interested in their country and culture.
- Be polite and learn the wai. Handshaking is quite common in Thailand, but many thais prefer to do the traditional Thai greeting, the wai. It consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. The higher the hands are held in relation to the face and the lower the bow, the more respect or reverence the giver of the wai is showing. The wai is traditionally observed upon entering formally a house. After the visit is over, the visitor asks for permission to leave and repeats the salutation made upon entering. The wai is also common as a way to express gratitude or to apologize.
- Leave your shoes outside. If you are invited in a private home, leave your shoes outside. Even in some offices and shops they expect you to take off your shoes. If you are in doubt, just have a look before you go inside. If there are shoes left outside, they expect you to do the same.
How not to behave
- Don’t shout or point at someone. If you want to be listened to, don’t raise your voice, shout or scream. I’ve seen Thai people turn around and walk away after being shouted at. In Norway we have a saying that politicians with bad arguments still can be heard if they only raise their voice. In Thailand it is the other way round. Keep your voice low if you want to be respected and listened to.
- Don’t discuss politics if you are not invited to. The Thai democracy is fragile, and the generals are never far away. For many Thai people politics are very private and only something they discuss with their close friends and family.
- Never say anything critical about the royal family. You will only embarrass people around you. Don’t talk about the monarchy at all, if you are not invited to.
- Don’t give people a hug or touch their hair. This is very much a “private property” in Thailand. You might get a different impression in tourist bars in Thailand, but Thai people are conservative. Topless sunbathing, for example, is illegal. And women should not wear naked shoulders inside temples.
- Don’t drink too much. In a friendly country with friendly people, cheap booze and long, warm nights, it’s easy to drink too much. Don’t do anything that’s against the law, and might get you into trouble. Thai people might be friendly. Thai prisons are not.