When US relationships counselor John Gray wrote his iconic book about the fundamental psychological differences between the sexes many might have also thought about the equally large gulf between the thinking of people of people from different backgrounds and cultures.
Hence the title – are those from a western background really so different to the men women and children of the Land of Smiles. Or is there a gap as wide as the Gulf of Thailand?
At times when you look at forums where foreigners gather to discuss Thailand – and Thaivisa forum is a perfect example – it appears like it is “us vs them”. A battle every bit as ferocious and lacking in understanding as that between the sexes in Gray’s 1990s bestseller.
That author billed his book as “a practical guide to improving communication” and it wasn’t as if the language was different….that wasn’t the point. The words used in communication were the same language but the interpretation from each of the sexes was different. Forgetting – if it is possible – the difference in the language between westerners and Thais, what can be done to improve understanding?
Not that I am assuming that things are not cordial in many relationships between the nationalities but there must be room for improvement. And of course like the criticism of his book, any discussion on the subject will be largely stereotypical. It is hard to get away from that.
John Gray’s book had two fundamental assertions. The first was that women awarded a kind of points system to the good deeds of men. In their assessment however the points were always one. So helping out with a household chore, or showing appreciation in a loving way perhaps, received the same point as providing for someone by working
for a year. Men could not grasp this one point system seeing everything in a gradated scale where certain things were worth much more meaning that they could “coast” after doing something big. They just didn’t get it that women needed a little and often to get by.
Could this correlate to cultural interactions between people of different nationalities in Thailand. Even people who have lived in the kingdom for years find themselves in many situations where they are perceived as recently arrived and perhaps have to “prove” themselves all over again. So the totting up of points never seems to end for many.
Indeed it can’t – remember to many people you always look like you just got off the boat.
Another central theme of Gray’s book is how stress is handled – women want to talk about their problems endlessly even if this has little direction towards finding an answer. While the approach of men is to retreat to their “cave” to get away from it all and address the problem anew when time has passed and their mood and perspective may have improved.
Certainly the ranting of many when it comes to cultural frustrations could suggest that foreigners could benefit from a little “cave” time. Some thought on perspective is in order.
For me the biggest problem is that foreigners living in Thailand are wont to compare everything with where they have come from – both good and bad. This is only natural, I suppose, especially among newbies but a far better way is to compare Thailand with Thailand, Thais with Thais.
Leave all your baggage from the west where it belongs – abroad.
Thais can be criticized but better not to compare them with foreigners. And it should be done in a way that is not bombastic – with a smile on the face. Thais always need a way out – this doesn’t mean they are ignoring the problem but confrontation is so anathema that talking around an issue is the way to go no matter what it is.
Coming to terms with this is not easy – sure, knowing the language helps but it is not the be all and end all. Body language and picking the time and place to raise issues are just as important.
Thais love to say things that are not true. Many farangs call this lying without fully realizing they do it as well in so many cultural situations. The Thais do it more because social harmony and the harmony of relationships is paramount.
Farangs see the terrible violence in Thailand that happens and perceive that Thais are over reacting. But the fact is that the reasons for the reaction are deep rooted and the reaction itself is not usually spur of the moment. It builds up then boils over. Then all hell breaks loose.
The key for westerners is to realize when the build-up is starting to occur and back off. This takes experience. Sometimes spotting that a Thai is furious means spotting that they are not smiling quite as strongly as their cultural mores dictate. It can be very subtle but with time you can spot it even among people in public who you do not
Thais hate too many details – this bugs foreigners who like everything buttoned down and explained. If you really need something done according to specifics you need to rationally explain exactly what you want.
A perfect example of this is coming on time – Thais won’t come on time in the sense that westerners understand it. But they will if they are confronted with a reason to not be late that they can grasp – like it will thoroughly put you out and cause problems if they are late. Try it.
Many foreigners complain they are seen as nothing more than walking ATMs. Thais think that if you have money you should share it. If you don’t want to part with it you will need to explain why in terms they will understand. Some vague need for it in the future doesn’t usually cut it as Thais are a much more in the present people.
Not parting with money will get you called mean. Smile and agree. And move on.
People on forums suggest that Thais are rude. Some are frequently. But then so is everybody.
In my experience Thais are overwhelmingly attracted to the idea of simple, common courtesy. How you hold yourself, how you move, how you smile, how you give others space and respect are part of the points totting up procedure.
Many foreigners think the Thais are not critical of their own society. This is nonsense. They are very critical and see their own shortcomings everywhere. generally perpetrated by politicians and the like to subjugate and appease.
But don’t confront the Thais with a comparison from the west. While it may be ok for some locals, especially those who have travelled, it will be pointless for others.
Point out how poor behavior impacts on you and be general not specific. Take criticism of yourself with good grace. Thais love people who put themselves down and abhor self-promotion.
Many posters on forums are extremely rude about Thai people and suggest their IQ is now. Absurd. Thais are as smart as the next nationality but they are going to express matters in terms of generality rather than specifics, so get used to it.
Sure, the education system might lack in helping critical thinking but, frankly, circumnavigating the pitfalls of their society and culture is such a massive undertaking that the training received just by living makes the Thais wilier than most. And funnier because they have to laugh at themselves.
And foreigners should know that being a Thai is not that easy. They have been thrown into some aspects of the modern world at breakneck speed and they need the understanding of westerners who have had much longer to adapt.
Thai perspectives can at times seem as though they are on another planet but with a little thought more common ground can be found. Some say that Thais are not prepared to budge and meet westerners half way.
They will come half way but they need to understand how that may be advantageous to them and it needs to, once again, be explained in terms that they can relate to.
So leave the west at home, and think a little more about planet Thai.