Etiquette and using the correct social behaviour is extremely important to Thai people, who are generally very good-natured and welcoming to foreigners. Etiquette dictates most social interactions in Thailand, and those who take the time to learn a few social customs will find that it enriches their experience in the Land of Smiles.
The concept of ‘face’ or ‘saving face’ is very important in Thailand, and people go to great lengths to show each other respect and avoid embarrassing one another. While Thai people will rarely point out your mistakes in public, failing to observe certain cultural practices when interacting with Thai people is sure to lose you points.
One of the most important Thai customs is the wai, which is a greeting made by pressing the palms of your hands together and bowing slightly. While there are several different types of wais that are used according to special standing, it is best for beginners to adopt the strangers wai, where you place you hands roughly in the centre of your chest. Try to make your hand motions smooth and graceful, starting with your hands against your sides and moving them slowly upwards until they are pressed palms together close to your chest.
Generally speaking, Thai people avoid touching each other in public, unless they are from the same family or very close friends. It is best to observe this practice when in Thailand and certainly avoid touching people on the head, as this is considered to the most sacred part of the body. Conversely, the feet are regarded as unholy and you should avoid touching people with your feet or gesturing with them.
Most Thai people dress conservatively, and it is best to avoid showing too much skin in public, especially around sacred areas such as temples. Women in particular should keep their shoulders and knees covered and avoid showing too much cleavage, while men should never remove their shirts in public (away from the beach).
Body language is often used to convey meaning in Thailand, and abrupt or dramatic gestures are often seen as a sign of aggression. It is best to make eye contact as much as possible when interacting and adopt the famous Thai smile.
Thai people also hate conflict, and in heated situations it is best to take a moment to calm down. If feeling intimidated, Thai people are more likely to walk away or simply stop speaking rather than lose their cool, and shouting will get you absolutely nowhere here.
Generally speaking, it is best to err on the side of politeness when in Thailand. Good manners and smiles are sure the ease even the most difficult situations.
Thai cultural behaviour is far reaching and subtle, and often creates a little frustration for foreigners who are unaware of the cultural habits that may influence everyday business and service. For an in-depth, albeit slightly dated, insight we recommend Robert and Nanthapa Cooper’s Culture Shock: Thailand (Times ISBN:981 204 157 5).