To state the obvious, Thai culture is very different from my culture.
I am from the United States. In the United States, if you are not happy with something, you say so, or at least let it be known that you are not pleased. Our emotions are very easy to read from the expressions on our faces.
For example, in a business transaction where a customer is displeased with a product or service, it is normal for the customer to express their displeasure to the clerk, server, manager, etc. There are various ways of doing this. Some people explode in anger, and some just walk away displeased without showing much emotion.
Most people are somewhere in the middle. They ask for an explanation or a solution to their problem, and if they are not satisfied with the outcome, the look on their face shows that displeasure clearly. Some will express their displeasure verbally, and others not, but it was always my experience back home that there was no mistaking an unhappy customer if you looked them in the eye.
Naturally, when I moved to Asia, I brought my western ways with me. It’s hard to break habits, even when they are counter productive in another culture.
I have been with my wife for 9 years now. She has taught me more about the differences between my culture and Thai culture in a few short, terse comments made while leaving certain business establishments than I have learned on my own in the 13 years I have lived in Asia.
To me, the one comment she says that has taught me the most about the differences between my culture and Thai culture is, “Can you not make your face do that?”
(This is always said in a short, tense burst, slightly under her breath. I’d also like to add, she isn’t smiling when she says it.)
I didn’t understand what she meant for a long time. Now, I get it. To me, it sums up the major differences in how our two cultures communicate non-verbally.
In Thailand, the most polite thing to do in any situation is smile. Even if you are completely disgruntled with the service or product you just received, you do all you can do to correct the situation, then no matter what the outcome, you walk away, smiling to whole time.
Slow to learn
This didn’t make sense to me for a long time. How could I smile if I was obviously right and the other person was obviously wrong? How could I smile if I was getting a raw deal? Why would I do that? It just didn’t make any sense to my western mind.
Over time, I have come to understand that in my culture, we choose to show our discontent as a way to communicate our feelings to the other person. I think this is partly in the hope that the person might learn something, or we might cause them to make some changes so that this bad situation won’t happen again. For some, it might also be a way to get back at a person they are unhappy with.
When I look back at my years living in the States, it seems to me that whatever my reason for feeling upset in a situation, I often walked away feeling disgruntled, and it would take me some time to let it go from my mind and shake off the negative feelings.
I am slowly learning that in polite Thai culture, it is most important to be able to handle a frustrating situation with dignity and control over your emotions so that you do not put those negative emotions on another person. The situation is what is it. You have tried to change it, to no avail, but that’s just the way it is. Let it go. Walk away, and smile, always smile.
This is often so hard to do as a westerner. But I find that I feel much better when I leave such a situation smiling, than I would have had I let my anger and frustration flow, making sure that the other person knew I was angry with them.
Anger they say is a double-edged sword. Letting go of it in my mind and leaving with a smile on my face makes the rest of my journey so much more enjoyable.
Though I can be fairly bull-headed at times, I am slowly learning small, useful lessons the more I learn about Thai culture.
What differences have you found between Thai culture and your own culture? Do you try to adjust your communication style to fit with with local culture, or do you try to maintain the communication style of your culture wherever you go? Please leave a comment below. I’d like to hear your thoughts.