What are common miscommunications between Thais and foreigners?

Thailand is an amazing country for foreigners because of its rich history and culture. However, Thais speak in a very different way to Westerners, and cultural misunderstandings can occur if you are unfamiliar with people from the Land of Smiles. Thai people are generally pleasant and laid-back, and they will forgive visitors who make unintended rude gestures. Making the effort to know some of these differences and knowing what you should and shouldn’t do can help you avoid an awkward scenario.

Giving advice or feedback
Indirect negative feedback is preferred in Thai culture. If a Thai friend or coworker wants to tell you something bad, they will do it discreetly and politely. They could try to pass off bad comments as helpful advice.

The Western communication approach favours straightforward negative feedback, which Thai people loathe, and avoid. This leads to misunderstandings since foreigners are used to communicating directly, whereas Thais would see it as being lectured to and judged.

When foreigners refuse to accept what Thais suggest they change or adapt, Thais become upset as to why they won’t listen. It sounds like kind advice rather than something serious.

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For example, Michael is being reviewed by his Thai boss, Nat, in a typical Thai way. Michael receives Nat’s feedback like a friendly piece of advice rather than proper constructive criticism. Instead of Nat guiding Michael in the right direction, Nat gives his idea of how he would approach the tasks.

Conflict Avoidance vs Confrontation
Thais don’t like confrontation. Arguments will likely cause a stir in relationships between friends and coworkers. They also believe that arguing or voicing their opinion is disrespectful and embarrassing.

While foreigners are more likely to voice their opinions, and being open minded. Differences of opinion are beneficial to the development of a workgroup. Personal relationships are not affected since business and personal relationships are kept separate.

This leads to misunderstandings since foreigners often believe they can challenge a Thai coworker without compromising the relationship. The Thai coworker will think about it for days on end and question why their foreign teammate can be rude at times and nice at another time.

For example, Jason and Vichai are having a meeting about their upcoming project that their boss has given them. Vichai proposes his idea to Jason, who disagrees with him and would rather take a different angle. Vichai’s mind is glued to Jason’s choice of words, and he just let his foreign coworker take the lead rather than challenge him with his idea.

Hierarchy vs Equality
In Western countries, everybody’s voice and opinion are heard and valued. In Thai culture, this is not the norm. The boss is rarely questioned, and whatever he or she demands is just accepted.

Being polite is more important to Thais than being correct, coming up with a creative answer, or having different ways to do things. When deciding whether or not to express what’s on their minds, your Thai coworkers or friends must consider their age, rank, and social status. Also, Thais don’t like losing face.

Here is an example of hierarchy vs equality. Robert just got a job in Thailand and is over the moon about his new experience. He has many fresh ideas about what he could bring to the table. On his first day, he lays out his thoughts to his Thai new coworkers, but the response didn’t go as expected.

Explicit vs Implicit
It’s Friday night, and the company that you work for is going out for dinner. Your Thai coworker, Bank, is late for the meal after having to finish a last-minute assignment. The team have ordered pizzas and there is only one slice left as Bank arrives. However, William asks if he can have the last slice, and Bank agrees even though he has not yet eaten and his stomach is growling.

For Thais, it’s completely different. They communicate in a high-context manner. Whatever they express, there is a level of complexity that most foreigners ignore. When a Thai asks if you have had your lunch, for example, they’re asking a lot more than just if you ate. They’re interested in learning about your day, and your plans. When foreigners are expecting their Thai friends to speak their their minds and interact in Western ways, they get into problems.

Low-context communication is normal for foreigners. If foreigners say they don’t want something, then they don’t want it. Direct and simple communication is preferred when speaking to others.

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Pete is a writer for The Thaiger, and he writes various topics from news, travel and property. His main focus is writing about Thai news, and what is happening in Thailand.

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