Saving face - do's and don'ts when visiting Thailand

Respect for the King is enormous

Respect for the King is enormous

By Andrew Bond

Thailand, much like the rest of Asia, is a country with its own unique social structure, cultural idiosyncrasies and complex behavioural codes. Self-respect and respect of the social hierarchy are prerequisites for conflict-free living and by and large, the Thais are very good at adhering to these concepts.

The hierarchy is observed by all but the king who, as the most respected figure in the country, is considered to be above everyone. Few holidaymakers appreciate the intensity of respect, admiration and even adoration which Thais hold for their king and while visitors are by no means expected to share all of these sentiments; it’s imperative that they are aware of the importance of the king and display due reverence in situations necessitating it.

Bad mouthing, speaking ill of or criticising the monarchy in any way is not only culturally taboo, but likely to land you in jail. For the average holidaymaker, there will be few opportunities to fall foul of the law or to cause offence to others when it come to the monarchy however some basic customs, such as standing for the national anthem at 08:00 and 18:00 in public places and before the start of a movie at a Thai cinema, should certainly be adhered to.

Recognising the importance of the Thai social hierarchy system is essential to understanding Thailand, with all members of society aware of their place and obliged to show awareness of the places of others during interaction. Typically, a Thai shows respect to those who are older, wealthier and of higher status through career or family association.

On meeting, respect is offered with a gesture called a wai, in which hands are placed in the prayer position with thumbs parallel to the base of the nose (sometimes higher). Thais traditionally greet each other with the phrase sawadee, which is punctuated with khrup if you are male or kha if you are female. These suffixes are generally applied at the end of every sentence and are a means of indicating respect for the person being addressed.

While visitors are not required to be aware of all the complex nuances of the social hierarchy, they will gain considerably more respect for themselves if they make some effort to observe the basics. When meeting monks, parents and grandparents of Thai friends, business associates and those in positions of government, it’s polite to wai. There is no need to wai children, those significantly younger than you or workers in guesthouses or restaurants unless they wai you first, in which case it’s fine to return the gesture.

The wai is a graceful greeting

The wai is a graceful greeting

The concept of ‘face’ is as integral to Thai society as it is to most East and Southeast Asian countries, and is one that dictates that all members try to avoid causing embarrassment to others (especially those above them) while saving themselves from embarrassment where possible.

The basic ramifications of this for visitors are that displays of anger in situations where things appear unsatisfactory will almost certainly cause loss of face to the irate individual and perhaps loss of face to the recipient of the ire; consequently bringing no sense of resolution to the situation for either party.

The Thai way of dealing with things is to remain calm and try to diffuse the situation. Visitors who are capable of shrugging their shoulders and saying “oh well, never mind”, or “mai pen rai”in Thai, will find their holiday experience considerably smoother than those who go in guns a-blazing.

The feet and head have particular significance in Thai culture; feet being considered low and dirty, while the head is given a status of sanctity. This is translated into everyday life with the idea that gesturing or pointing with the feet is considered rude, as is showing the soles of the feet to someone. Furthermore, footwear is considered even lowlier than the foot itself and hence in temples, private homes and some restaurants and public buildings; it’s necessary to remove outdoor shoes before entering.

Visitors can easily respect these beliefs and in particular, pay attention to where their feet are in relation to others. Obviously if you are going for a foot massage, these rules don’t apply as it’s entirely unavoidable for your feet to be anywhere but in close proximity to the face of the masseur. With regards to the head, it’s considered highly inappropriate to touch or pat the head of another, especially if that person is your social senior. Moreover, the head of a monk should always be higher than that of his subjects and hence visitors should stoop or kneel when approaching any mature orange-clad characters during temple visits.

Buddhism and strict social moral codes dictate the public behaviour of the average Thai, based on values such as discretion and conservatism. Put simply, this means that aberrant, outlandish and extreme behaviour is ill-tolerated, likely to gain significant disapproval from the locals and something which visitors are wise to avoid.

Public displays of affection are also frowned upon and while the holding of hands between partners is becoming more common, kissing and other physical exchanges are likely to raise eyebrows. Appearance and dress should also be considered, and visitors should be aware that what they wear, or perhaps what they don’t wear, has the capacity to offend.

While it might be considered appropriate to walk around Thailand’s beach resorts shirtless if you are a man or in a skimpy top or bikini if you are a woman, such a state of undress has no place in inland towns and cities irrespective of the weather. Even on the beach, discretion is necessary and ladies are wise to avoid going topless regardless of whether other western women are choosing to do so. As a general rule; if the locals aren’t doing it then it’s not appropriate.

All things considered, visitors might feel that Thailand offers a myriad of pitfalls that are likely to lead to social faux pas. However, the locals are very forgiving of minor misdemeanours, appreciating that westerners come from cultures that are diversely different from their own. Flagrant disregard or deliberate attempts to mock or insult individuals, the king or the honour of the country however, are likely to be met with little tolerance and may lead to serious consequences.

More on Thai culture and etiquette

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