Thailand - Speaking To Please Others
There are common themes with cultural behavioral traits in Thailand. The first is that the individual trait, upon first encountering it, seems perfectly reasonable. The second is that there is seemingly an equivalent behavioral trait in Western societies. The third is that the behaviour is taken to such an extreme, that instead of it being reasonable it becomes perverse, eccentric and frustrating.
พูดเอาใจ (poot ao jai)
Dictionary definition: To be ingratiating, be pleasing, say what (somebody) wants to hear.
It sounds reasonable, doesn't it? People in Western societies tell white lies and have sayings such as, "If you can't think of anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."
If your wife wants some feedback about her new hairstyle or dress, or the dinner she has just cooked, there is no need to be absolutely truthful if it is going to cause bad feelings (and if you want to avoid not being spoken to for three days). Just say what she wants to hear.
The problem in Thailand - as with other cultural traits - this goes much, much further. Of all the various aspects of Thai cultural behaviour, this is probably the one that frustrates me most. Thais might think they are being kind to me by always telling me what I want to hear, but it is the complete opposite.
Perhaps some examples will help.
My first example is from over 40 years ago, before Thailand was even on my radar. While watching TV, the English stand-up comedian Jasper Carrott talked about a trip he had taken to Thailand. He said that whenever he asked for anything he always received a positive answer, but then nothing happened. He simply couldn't work this out. He'd ask if they had sauce at a restaurant, he'd be told yes, but then nothing would happen. He was just being told what he wanted to hear.
When I used to visit Thailand as a young, free and single tourist I met lots of pretty, friendly, smiling Thai girls. Some were very pleasant and I tried to set up dates. They agreed and a time and place was arranged to meet. I'd turn up, but the girls never did. Instead of telling me they didn't want to meet they simply told me what I wanted to hear, but they had no intention of meeting.
As a tourist I also asked directions at times. I was always given directions, but often sent on a wild goose chase. I could never work out whether the person who gave me bad directions thought he would lose face if he didn't know the answer, or whether I was simply told what I wanted to hear, even if the directions were wrong.
When I was working my contract was about to expire and I wanted to know if it would be extended. They knew that it wouldn't, but no one wanted to give me bad news. They just kept me hanging on wasting my time when I could have been using that time to look for a new job.
When I lived in a rented house the monthly rent was cheap, but the house was in bad shape. I knew that the landlord wouldn't be interested in fixing any problems so took it upon myself to get repairs done. I wasted many days waiting fot tradesmen who didn't show up. They would always say they would arrive at 9am the following day because that is what I wanted to hear, but they had no intention of turning up.
When I bought a house the doors and windows had poor quality locks and I wanted extra locks fitted. I asked about half a dozen tradesmen who did this work if they would do the work. They all came to take a look, said they would come back, but never did. Eventually, about four years later, I got the work done by the father of one of my daughter's schoolfriends.
I have a problem with a patio area outside my house because the builders took the path of least resistance and didn't do the job properly. I talked to the developer months ago and they said they would send someone to look at it. I'm still waiting. They told me what I wanted to hear, but had no intention of actually doing anything.
Feedback is important and big companies spend lots of money on customer surveys in order to get feedback. From the feedback they receive, they can tell what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, and they can work out what to do to correct any problems.
In Thailand you can't do this because no one ever wants to tell the truth. Thais always tell people what they want to hear, not the truth. Amateur talent contest shows on TV have become big items in recent years in many countries and Thailand is no exception. It's quite amusing to watch because no matter how bad an act is, the judges will never say anything negative.
What makes this worse is when you combine different aspects of Thai cultural behaviour. Let me give you an example by imagining you are teaching English in Thailand.
You can't push the students too hard because it takes them out of their comfort zone and they don't feel sabaay. You are supposed to turn every teaching activity into a game to make it sanook.
If you ask your students if there are any questions or problems there never are because the students are being greng jai towards the teacher. If you insist on trying to elicit some feedback you are told what you want to hear because poot ao jai. And so on.
I have often said that living in Thailand is completely different to visiting Thailand as a tourist. The cultural trait of poot ao jai serves as a good example.
As a tourist you will be constantly flattered and you won't hear anything bad. By the end of his two week stay in Pattaya, the 75 year-old, beer-bellied sex tourist might actually start to believe that he really is a handsome man because he has heard it so many times from the bargirls.
When you live in Thailand it is different. Once you understand that people are only telling you what you want to hear, you have to start second guessing everything.
If a tradesman tells you that he will arrive at 9am tomorrow to do a job in your house, do you cancel your original plans and stay indoors or will you be wasting your time when he doesn't turn up?
You also have to be careful about what you say yourself, bearing in mind that Thais have issues with the truth. My wife and I had to select which stream my daughter will attend in junior school. It is a private school and therefore there are fees to be paid.
We would like her to have gone into the top stream, but it was too expensive and we chose the middle stream instead. Later, at a meeting with the headmistress, we were asked why she wasn't going into the top stream. She has a foreign father and she is good at English, we were told, she should be in the top stream.
My wife reacted in typical Thai fashion. She gave one of her shy, nervous laughs without giving an answer to the question. My view is that if I am asked a question, then I should give a truthful answer. This is just the way I have been brought up. I told the headmistress that it was too much money for us, especially as we have two children.
When we got home, my wife challenged me on this and told me I had been too direct. Even if Thais don't say what someone wants to hear, they will avoid saying anything that the person may not want to hear.
Even though I was observant and read a lot about Thailand when I first arrived in the country, it took me a long time to even start to understand Thai thinking and behaviour. It took about four years just to start to scratch the service.
This is because Thais keep so much hidden and won't say anything negative about anything or anyone. This applies especially to matters about Thailand because in addition to poot ao jai they think that saying anything about their country is being unpatriotic.
Other Thai Culture Pages You May Be Interested In
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you wish to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
Images of Thailand