Thai Customs and Etiquette
Thai customs and cultural norms: what to do when meeting someone, making business introductions and handing over business cards and giving gifts...
Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, so many of the customs in Thai culture are based on Buddhist values except in some parts of the south where many people are Muslim.
While Thai customs may seem very conservative to some westerners, Thai people are generally very relaxed and easy-going and will rarely take offence if a foreigner fails to follow Thai etiquette. However foreigners should be aware of some simple customs and certain comments or actions which should always be avoided.
What Not To Do
Negative comments about the country and king should be avoided.
Negative opinions about any member of the royal family should never be expressed. Doing so will almost certainly stop any chance of building good relations and could possibly lead to legal action. All images of the royal family should be treated respectfully.
Any image of a Buddha should be treated with extreme respect. Do not point the soles of the feet in the direction of a Buddha. Do not touch or deface any image or statue of a Buddha or monk.
In Thai Buddhism, the head is regarded as sacred. Care should be taken not to show disrespect towards other people's heads. For example, passing items over someone's head or stepping over their pillow can cause great offence to some. Likewise, the feet are considered dirty. The feet should not be used to point to things and should not be placed near objects associated with the head. The soles of the feet should not be positioned facing images of the Buddha or the royal family. The extent to which Thai people are offended by issues concerning the head and feet varies greatly. However, it is better to be overly conservative to avoid possible offence.
Do not pass anything with your left hand, and never point with one finger.
It is common practice to remove shoes before entering a Thai home. Thai people are very conscious about cleanliness and wearing shoes inside is not appreciated. Stepping over the threshold, rather than on it, will avoid offending any older or conservative members of the family. Many schools and offices also do not like outdoor shoes to be worn inside certain rooms. Always check at the door before entering; if there are shoes at the door, it generally means that shoes should not be worn inside that room.
Courtesy is very important to Thais. Being polite and respectful to others is considered indispensable to maintaining good relations. Speaking softly and smiling warmly will always help to create positive dealings.
As in many other Asian countries, causing someone to "lose face" is never good. Open criticisms and negative responses are seen as an insult to the other person and cause them to lose face. Regardless of who is "right" or "wrong", it is the person who has caused another to lose face that is seen as the one who has erred. Negative responses should be given indirectly and compromises should be sought when agreements cannot be found.
Public displays of emotion are best avoided. In no situation is it considered appropriate to show anger or a negative emotion. Doing so causes the other person to lose face and will not encourage sympathy or help from others.
Some Thai people are very conservative regarding members of the opposite sex. To avoid possible embarrassment it is better to avoid physical contact (even shaking hands) with someone of the opposite sex until a close relationship has been established.
There is a strong hierarchy in Thai society which is evident at many levels. Among other things, age, social position and wealth affect a person's place in the hierarchy. When Thais meet someone for the first time, it is not unusual for them to ask several questions in order to establish where they fit in the hierarchy. These questions may seem very personal to some foreigners but it is best to accept them in good nature and without affront.
The family is at the centre of much of Thai life. Independence and individuality is not given the importance that it is in many western cultures. Hierarchy is present in the family with parents at the top. Family members often depend on and support each other. This selflessness is evident in friendship as well. The group is considered more important than the individual. It is not uncommon for wealthier friends to pay the bill for drinks or dinner.
Thai greetings often involve a wai (pronounced why). To wai, the hands are raised as if in prayer and the head is bowed.
There are strict rules concerning who and how to wai. Generally, the younger or junior person (in regard to the social hierarchy) initiates the wai. It is considered unlucky by some Thais for an older or senior person to wai a younger or junior person first. The lower the head is bowed, the more respect is shown. As foreigners are usually not expected to know of wai etiquette, they will be excused mistakes. However, to avoid possible embarrassment to the Thai person, it is generally safer not to initiate a wai if you are at all unsure. Always return a wai, except from restaurant or shop staff.
Appearance is very important to Thai people and care should be taken to dress smartly and appropriately.
In formal or semi-formal situations, it is better to wait for the hostess/host to make the introductions. Self introductions are rare.
Hierarchy is always present and the oldest member of the group is honoured. Often, seating will be arranged with regard to the hierarchy. It is therefore better to wait until you are told where to sit.
Thais rarely use surnames - the honorific title Khun is placed before a person's first name. Khun is a general title and can be used for all persons.
Gift giving is not a part of Thai culture like it is in many other Asian countries. If a gift is given, it should be wrapped nicely; gold and yellow are considered auspicious colours, so are good for wrapping paper. Avoid green, black or blue as they are associated with funerals. Gifts will rarely be opened in front of the giver and will often be put aside until later. This is simply to avoid any show of emotion which may cause embarrassment. For weddings and ordination parties, money is placed in the envelope in which the invitation was received.
Thais prefer to build relationships before conducting business. Therefore, it will be likely that several meetings will take place. Discussing business before establishing relations is impolite. Often, issues will need to be discussed repeatedly and at many levels before decisions are made.
Body language is important in Thai communication and respect and politeness should always be shown. Sit nicely and do not lounge in the chair. Saying no directly is considered impolite and Thais generally will never do so. Being receptive to subtle body language and indirect replies will help to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.
Appointments for meetings should be made well in advance. It is a good idea to confirm the details of the meeting the day before. Arriving on time shows respect, although Thais often have a more relaxed view of time than is common in the west. Information concerning the agenda, the companies represented and the persons in attendance should be sent in advance. This will help Thai members prepare accordingly by knowing the hierarchy of the group. To avoid confusion and misunderstandings, written material, including business cards, should be provided in Thai and English. Business cards are generally exchanged after the greetings. A business card should be offered with the right hand. Take time to read the card and make a polite comment about it.
Business dress is conservative. Suits should be dark or mute coloured. If skirts are worn, they should be knee-length or longer. The shoulders should always be covered. Smart shoes, and socks without holes are essential in case the shoes are to be removed.
- For further information about Thai customs and social etiquette the Ministry of Culture publishes a small book, Thai Social Etiquette, available at most leading bookstores.
- For more information about Thai customs and etiquette: Click here
- For more information about business etiquette: Click here
- For information on Thai temple etiquette: Click here
- For information on Thai driving etiquette: Click here