There are dozens upon dozens of books that take an in depth look at Thai history and culture. I am not going to try to emulate them here. What I am going to do is tell you what you need to know to make a comfortable transition. This is part 8 and the final article in a series on Thai culture.
The Feet – Always take off your shoes when entering someone’s home. Never use your feet to point or do something your hands can do such as closing a door. Never rest your feet on a table or on a car dashboard. In relation to this, if someone is lying down, never step over them. Walk around them. Note, as with most things in life, when you are among very close friends, these rules of politeness can go out the window. Observe your friends and when unsure, border on the side of caution. Never point your feet at a Buddha image or at a Monk.
The Head – Never touch someone on the head. The only exception is a small child or a significant other with whom you are very close.
Blowing Your Nose – It’s extremely rude to blow your nose in public. The Thais will excuse themselves to the privacy of the bathroom for this or sniffle until they can reach such a place.
Picking Your Nose – Contrary to what logic might dictate, while blowing one’s nose is considered very rude and disgusting, it’s perfectly acceptable to pick it. No matter how many times I see it, I can never quite accept a beautiful young girl with her finger up her nose.
Yes – The Thais don’t like to disappoint. And although it defies Western logic, if you ask for something and the real answer is no, you will often be told yes. Be aware of this. If you suspect the answer may be no, but are told yes right away, don’t assume it means yes. Double and triple check and offer a way out such as ‘If no, mai pen rai, really’. In this way, the Thai will not lose face by telling you no if the answer is indeed no.
Volume – The volume at which many Americans speak never ceases to amaze me. Even when the person I am speaking with is 2 feet away, they project their voice as if they are on stage on Broadway. In the US this may be considered a show of strength and confidence or maybe everyone is just hard of hearing. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that speaking at this volume in Thailand will result in making the person you are speaking with feel extremely uncomfortable, not to mention embarrassing yourself. Here again can be found another contradiction in Thai culture, for volume from all other things does not seem to bother anyone. Dogs bark constantly. Music is played by outdoor karaoke bars at ear shattering volumes. Trucks drive around cities with giant speakers, broadcasting news of the latest motorcycles or laundry detergent. And no one seems to mind. But raise your voice when you speak and you will bother all of those within earshot.
Eye contact – Don’t look a superior directly in the eye. While this is considered a sign of respect and trustworthiness in the West, in Thailand, as with a tiger, this is a sign of a challenge and disrespect. If you find yourself speaking with someone of obvious superior status, look slightly down or past them, but not directly in the eyes.
Misc. – If you must walk between two people or walk in front of someone who is watching TV or some other event, always bend over slightly. This is a show of respect. Failing to do so is quite rude.
If someone is sitting, never stand over them and speak. This makes you look arrogant and belittles the person sitting. In schools across the country, when a student comes into a room to speak with a teacher who is sitting at a desk, the student kneels down to the level of the teacher. It is a simple show of respect.