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Culture Shock in Thailand

Culture Shock in Thailand

Thai people are known all over the world for their friendly nature, and have a rich cultural heritage they are extremely proud of. As with any other destination, however, expats can expect a degree of culture shock in Thailand.

Expats moving to Thailand will most likely experience culture shock

Expats living in Thailand will find themselves in a beautiful country that offers many beautiful beach islands. However, that’s not all it has to offer, with amazing national parks, natural landscapes and historical cities.
Thailand is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, it provides numerous opportunities for the high-level executive to lead a jet-set lifestyle. On the other, expats will also find backpackers trying to increase their budget by freelancing as English tutors. Although, these are only two aspects and aren’t representative of what life in Thailand is all about for the average expat.
Modern business, healthcare, several international schools and accommodation are all commonplace in Thailand but, unlike other destinations in Southeast Asia, expats can enjoy unusual luxury because of its low cost of living.
Here are some of the cultural differences expats in Thailand will encounter.

Meeting and greeting in Thailand

Meeting and greeting in Thai culture is very different from many other countries.

The Thais greet each other with a wai (pronounced “why”). A person places the palm of their hands together at chest level, holding them close to their body, with a slight bow. The higher the hands are placed, the more respect is shown, but people should never have the tips of their fingers higher than their nose. With this gesture, men say sawadee-krap, and women say sawadee-ka, which are used to say hello as well as goodbye.

Foreigners – or farangs, as the Thai like to say – are not expected to initiate a wai gesture, but it is an insult if a person doesn’t return a wai. In Thai etiquette, the subordinate should always offer a wai first.

It can cause embarrassment when offering a wai to someone of lower social standing, as this may lead them to lose face. Expats should therefore note that a wai is not used to greet children, servants, street vendors or labourers. It’s also not expected to return a wai to a child, waiter or someone of similar social standing – simply nod and smile in response.

People should never give a wai if their hands are full. Instead, the object should be put down or they should dip their head in a light bow to acknowledge another person’s wai.
Another aspect that is very different to Western culture is that, when introducing people to one another in Thailand, the person with lower status is introduced first. For instance, a secretary is introduced before her boss.

Dress in Thailand

Outward appearances are important to Thai people. Here, the old saying “clothes maketh the man” holds true. Thais appreciate farangs who make an effort to maintain a professional and reserved appearance.
T-shirts and shorts are acceptable for going just about anywhere, but pants and skirts should be of a modest length, while sports clothes and tank tops are worn almost exclusively for sporting activities.
For office jobs in Thailand, expats will be expected to wear fairly formal attire. Women should avoid sleeveless blouses, and jeans are a definite no. Men are expected to wear dressy pants and shirts with a collar; ties aren’t mandatory, but recommended for formal gatherings.
In beach towns like Phuket, Hua Hin and Krabi, Thais are more accustomed to foreigners wearing bikinis and swimming attire at the beach. However, when going for lunch or a stroll around town, make sure to cover up and wear a shirt and shorts.

Language barrier in Thailand

Thai is a tonal language with five different tones. The tone of a word is used to distinguish its meaning, which means one word can have five completely different meanings.
If an expat pronounces a word incorrectly, it is likely to have an entirely different meaning from what they intended to say. The upside is that Thais are very forgiving when foreigners try to speak their language, and once they understand what a farang wants, they will teach them how to say the word correctly.
When speaking English in Thailand – especially in places outside of Bangkok – it’s best to speak slowly and clearly.

Religion in Thailand

About 95 percent of the population in Thailand practise Buddhism, which is more a way of life than a religion in the way that many Westerners understand it. It plays a key role in the general nature of the people. Throughout the country there are also many beautiful temples, which are known as wats in Thai.
Other religions do exist in Thailand, and the King protects everyone’s right to the religion of their choice.

Women in Thailand

As in many countries, men conduct most business in Thailand. However, over the past few years many barriers have begun disappearing for women. More and more women hold executive positions in the workforce, although there is still a long way to go for total equality.
According to traditional Thai beliefs, women are not allowed to touch a monk, hand him anything or sit next to him on the same or higher level. In mosques, women need to cover up and wear long-sleeved blouses, a long skirt or pants and a headscarf.
Expats should also note that it’s fairly uncommon to show public displays of affection. Therefore, men should be careful when interacting with a woman in public, as Thais believe a woman loses face if a man touches her in public.

Cultural dos and don’ts in Thailand

  • Do show great respect to the Thai royal family. They are highly revered by the local population.
  • Do take the Thai national anthem very seriously. It is played several times a day – every day at 8am and 6pm when the flag is raised and lowered, and before movies in the cinema. When the anthem is being played, everyone must stop what they are doing and stand to attention out of respect.
  • Don’t ever touch the head of a Thai person or pass any objects over someone’s head. The head is the highest part of the body and is considered sacred in Thailand. It needs to be treated with utmost respect.
  • Do take off shoes when entering homes, temples or buildings that have an image of the Buddha inside. Some shops and offices also expect the same. So, before entering, check and see whether there is a space where people leave their shoes. If so, be sure to do the same.
  • Don’t use feet for anything other than standing or walking. It is not acceptable for people to put feet up on a table or desk, and expats should avoid pointing their feet at people. It is also considered impolite to touch one’s feet in public.
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