The Thais have a tendency to accept rather than to challenge. One might, in fact, draw the conclusion that the Thai personality has a built-in mechanism to resist change, though they are generally willing to incorporate new attitudes and new patterns of behavior if they are perceived as pleasant, or it appears as sanook, meaning fun or pleasant. In their view, there are relatively few other cultures that are more sanook than their own.
The stereotype of the hot-headed and emotional American persists alongside an appreciation of his friendliness and frankness. The Thais are able to treat the Farang (the Thai word for Westerner) as a fellow human being. They do not feel the need to display a superiority complex or to hide inadequacies.
The Thais have fortunately avoided the sometimes psychologically confused and troubled state of formerly colonized people. There is a firm foundation, devoid of anti-Farang sentiments, on which to build better understanding between the Thai and Farang communities.
The Thais are friendly, adaptable, and have a good sense of fun. There are only two things the Thais are not flexible about and the American should be careful and respectful about them at all times. These are a deep and abiding love and respect for the Royal Family, and for Buddhism.
The acute sense of hierarchy which pervades all personal relationships generates a system of status and rank. Each Thai knows exactly what his status or rank is. It is quite obvious that the King and the Sangka (priesthood) are at the top of the system, followed by other members of the Royal Family and top military and government officials. Less obvious factors affecting rank include age, money, education, contributions to society, and achievement in the arts, sports, etc. This hierarchy deeply affects the American and his family living and working in Thailand.
Knowing who to talk with and how the process works in advance is a key to navigating Thai hierarchies. From obtaining an official permit to visiting a doctor's office, from opening a bank account to attending a business meeting, learning to navigate the omnipresent Thai hierarchies requires skill and patience.
Farangs are often puzzled by the high incidence of violence in a society traditionally identified with gentleness and avoidance of overt expressions of anti-social behavior and attitudes. Bangkok has a high crime rate. Robbery and assault are extremely common. Being khamoyed (robbed) is almost an expected part of any extended stay here. Guns and knives are easily available. Thai films are filled with scenes of violence.
Why have the gentle, affable, smiling Thais become so violence prone? To fully understand the Thai personality, we must appreciate that the “cool heart” and the ubiquitous smile are often merely cultural masks covering concerns related to destiny, face, or perceived status. There is strain and tension, and release is sought, at least initially, through indirect methods. A Thai may first respond to becoming upset by turning away, trying to distance himself from whatever is upsetting them.
When these techniques are no longer psychologically satisfying or effective, extreme forms of violence may result. Overt expressions of hatred and anger are culturally taboo, and the alternatives are limited. The social and cultural controls that operate in a closely knit village society obviously break down in an impersonalized urban context.
The Farang, with his (usually) gradually escalating expressions of anger, from the flushed face and harsh and heated words, to the slap on the face, the shove, the punch and sometimes the knife and gun, finds it difficult to comprehend the dramatic leap from the cool-hearted Thai smile to the out-of-nowhere knife thrust. Of course, that's a bit dramatic – none of your Thai friends or colleagues are likely to come lunging at you with a knife after smiling off an absent-minded insult from you, but the leap from the smile to the attack is real in Thailand, so don't ever assume that all smiles means everyone's happy.
What Expats Are Saying
One of the defining qualities of Thai people is the fact that they rarely show strong emotion in public. You'll find that it takes quite a lot to make a Thai lose his or her temper and if they do it is a very serious matter. If you've done something to make a Thai person lose their temper with you I suggest you immediately attempt to either diffuse the situation or remove yourself from the situation.
“Jai yen” literally means cool heart. In a country that's 95% Theravada Buddhist, “jai yen” is the preferred approach to any situation. If a cop pulls you over and sticks you for a bribe, “jai yen” dictates that you pay it to avoid an unpleasant scene. If someone cuts you off in traffic, you shrug your shoulders and suppress your natural urge to run the guy into a ditch. “Jai yen”. For Buddhists, an emotionally moderate, non-confrontational approach to life will bring its reward when you are reborn. Practice “jai yen”, and you may come back as a demi-god; get a little hot under the collar and you may find your new, single-celled self bobbing on the surface of a sewage treatment plant in Bang Saphan.
Steve (at) http://www.thailandmusings.com
For the newly arrived Farang expat just settling in, it's easy to misinterpret the agreeable smiles that one encounters everywhere. Learning to read the situation is as important as listening carefully to what is, and is not being said – when Yes actually means 'Yes I'll do what you ask' and not 'Yes I hear you asking', for example. Such interpretative skills are not limited in their usefulness to Thailand, but you'll find them especially handy in the land of Smiles & the Cool Heart.