A complex hierarchy of respect, building relationship before doing business, and emotional restraint are all values that you are likely to encounter when you begin conducting business in Thailand. While in the West, smiling often means agreement or approval, it can mean embarrassment or lack of understanding in Thailand. Whenever possible, it is helpful to work closely with a Thai business counterpart or someone very familiar with the culture when entering into negotiations in Thailand to ensure that you understand the subtle messages being conveyed.

Traditional Thai Worldview

Group Orientation
Identity defined by group; group welfare supersedes individual concerns; interdependence; yet a strong sense of self, dignity and pride

Harmony within group important; conflict avoidant; competition may be seen as disruptive

Relationship Focused
Interaction takes precedence over time; reciprocity of relationship important (mutual obligation); work in order to live

Well formed pattern of rank & authority; status well defined within the hierarchy; formal

Tolerance for Ambiguity
Moderate need for certainty, yet open to change

Requires reference to context; loose application of formal rules; accommodation to circumstances

Fluid Time
Time is intangible and plentiful. Priorities can easily be shifted. Beginning and end times for social and business appointment are flexible.

Cultural Notes:

  • More than 90% of Thais are Buddhist, making it the largest Buddhist population in the world.
  • The Kingdom of Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. The king is highly revered in Thailand and spoken of only in the most respectful way. The same respect is expected of foreigners.
  • Many of the country’s largest businesses are owned by people of Chinese or Sino-Thai heritage. Family links remain an important part of business culture.

Cultural Assumptions

  • Wai: The traditional prayer-like gesture and lowering of the head demonstrates respect for seniority, superiors and age.  Those lower in the hierarchy  initiate Wai and superior may wai or simply smile in return. Hierarchy of respect runs through all relationships.
  • Influence of Buddhism: Image of Buddha is sacred. Religious devotion is insurance for the afterlife.
  • Kreng Cai: Consideration by inferiors for superiors (of an elder or person of higher status) involves  intricate and complex rules of respect. Keeping one’s desires and self-interest in check avoids discomfort to others.
  • Cai Yen: Emotional restraint preserves harmony.
  • Sia-na: Face.
  • Mai pen rai: Fatalism — much of life is outside of one’s control. “Never mind;” “ so be it;” “such is life.”
  • Ngan & Sanuk: Work and play. The workplace is an environment to do work and to socialize and enjoy life.

Traditional Thai Communication Style

Imply/suggest what is meant.  You need to read between the lines.  Candor and honesty are considered embarrassing and counter-productive; pay attention to what is not said.

High Context
Relationship determines the nature of the communication. Communication upward is more formal and indirect. Communication downward can be slightly less formal and direct.

Sensitivity to hierarchy/face saving very important.  Face is  measured by being calm under any circumstances.

Emotional displays avoided; instead patience, humor and jai yen (cool heart) are used; levels of emotional expression grounded in Buddhist origin of detaching the self from the emotions.

Message may appear to weave and wander to those with a more linear communication style. The word “no” is seldom heard. Instead, “no” is expressed in less direct terms.

Non-Verbal Communication

  • Smiling may show pleasure and accompany greetings and conversations. However,  smiling in difficult situations may indicate discomfort or embarrassment.
  • Waving hands (gesturing) while talking gives the impression of anger
  • Eye contact is important for developing trust in relationships
  • Tidy dress indicates an honorable person; sloppy or overly casual dress indicates lack of self-respect and respect of others

Guidelines for Communicating with Thai People

  • Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings.
  • Learn to read non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, body movements, gestures, pauses, and smiles.
  • Develop a belief that words can be inadequate and insufficient.
  • Accept that Thais value indirect talk and that requests are often implied.
  • Learn the hierarchical protocol for Wai.
  • Don’t be surprised if you never discuss business topics in your first meeting.  This meeting is often used to establish trust.
  • Accept that saving face is important, so you will seldom hear the word “no.”  “Yes” does not necessarily mean they agree.  When a Thai says, “That is difficult”, it often means “No.”
  • Never insult the king or any part of the monarchy
  • Use eye contact and a friendly tone.
  • Overt displays of emotion are seen as immature and can erode trust.
  • Consider that ethnic group, level of education and exposure to international business will impact communication style.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

While Westerners tend to pick up subtleties in tone of voice to indicate someone’s mood, Thais read more into body language and approach.  Do not put your hands in your pockets while talking to someone. Always stand in respect when the national anthem is played. Avoid active gesturing while speaking as it might be perceived as anger or lack of self-control. Smiling may mean pleasure but may also mean embarrassment.

Touching members of the opposite sex in public is not acceptable. Touching members of the same sex is common in casual personal interaction. Never use your feet — the least sacred part of the body — to move anything or touch anyone. Monks are forbidden to touch or be touched by women. Avoid putting your arm over the back of a chair in which someone is sitting.

People may be forced in public to be in close proximity; however direct touching is avoided as a way to respect personal space. Elders, monks, teachers and those on the top of the hierarchy in a given context are given more personal space. Living quarters, especially in urban settings, can feel very tight by Western standards.

Values in Tension

  • Acceptance of Fate versus Control over Environment
  • Stability, Tradition versus Change and Progress
  • Rural vs. Urban (primarily Bangkok)
  • Rank, Status, Hierarchy versus Egalitarianism
  • Group Orientation versus Individualism
  • Birthright Inheritance versus Self-Help, Improvement
  • Cooperation/Harmony versus Competition
  • Past Orientation versus Future Orientation
  • Formality, Ritual versus Informality, Innovation
  • Indirectness versus Directness
  • Philosophical Consideration versus Practical Application
  • Spirituality versus Materialism

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Solutions usually filter from top downwards, but assertion of ideas is acceptable within a certain parameter, usually within a peer group, and in an indirect manner.
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Employees are motivated by a friendly, pleasant work environment. Deference upward is expected in return for caring for employees. Money motivates, but time off to enjoy life is equally important.p
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Direct discussion if good news, indirect mention of areas requiring improvement.
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Top management network thrives on small talk, but in negotiating, extreme solutions may be presented, and bargaining continues all the way until a contract is signed. In traditional business, subjective feelings are taken into account. Thais with education from a foreign university may accept facts as sole basis for evidence.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Decisions are the sole responsibility of top echelon. Fate and luck may play a significant role in the actions of those making decisions.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Value on politeness and calm, professional composure. Time is elastic, and while punctuality is respected, meetings may start late and run over. Subordinates may choose not to speak in front of superiors, or will usually defer. Information may be shared more openly among peers.
Paternalistic relationships; boss may be stand in for family elders and show support for business and personal problems; subordinates reciprocate with loyalty and respect.
HIRING In larger organizations, hiring/dismissal is based on merit or on the benefit an individual brings to the organization through high-level relationships. In smaller corporations or family businesses, hiring may be exclusively relationship-based.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Inside connections essential; people go out of their way to support friends and family. Price is less important than maintaining a long-term relationships.