Ten Ways to Avoid Offending Thai Culture

by Chris Foley

Studying abroad in Thailand is an amazing way to gain insight to a fascinating culture. The people of Thailand are quite welcoming and gracious to visitors. With that said, this society has behavioral expectations that polite people should follow. Here are a few tips to ensure you are well received (and invited back) when you study abroad in Thailand:

Buddha statue in Thailand
Be respectful of the Buddha when in Thailand. Photo by Troy Peden

10. Leave Some Space.

Thai culture is more reserved in the physical sense than many Western cultures. People seldom hug each other as a greeting, unless they haven’t seen each other in a very long time. A wave and smile is commonplace. It is also considered very disrespectful to touch the top of someone’s head, or to have feet pointing at someone. Do not put feet up on the furniture, ever, even in the most relaxed of Thai homes. This is not to say you always have to be worried about the position of your hands and feet, but simply to avoid any blatant gestures with them.

9. Have A Sense Of Humor.

A goofy sense of humor is much appreciated. Going along with common Thai expressions, it is bad to be stressed out or tense (kriat), but good to be relaxed or happy (sabai). A sarcastic sense of humor goes over well with many Thai people.

8. Speak Respectfully To Elders.

In Thai, there are certain ways of speaking to people of different ages and ranks. The nuances are too numerous to name here and are best learned through conversation. Mistakes are better made with peers than with elders. As a general rule when conversing with elders, guys should add the formal and pleasant, but undefinable word krup to the end of a thought. For ladies, the formal counterpart is ka.

A native Thai woman with her kid.

A native Thai woman with her kid.

Photo by Ashley Houston

7. Help People Communicate With You.

It is not guaranteed that all the people you meet in Thailand will understand or feel comfortable speaking English. Offer corrections in English and make an effort to speak some Thai. If they are having a hard time in English, then you shouldn't be embarrassed to make some mistakes in Thai.

6. Answer Questions.

Folks in Thailand tend to ask you a lot of questions, especially upon first meeting. Luckily, these are usually pretty easy questions. Where are you going? Have you eaten yet? Where are you from? And on and on. Take some of the phrases you notice popping up again and again in conversation, and learn how to ask and answer them in Thai.

5. Try New Foods.

Thai people are very proud of their cuisine, and for good reason: it’s fantastic! Often, the best way to break the ice with someone and get to know them is to go out to eat together. The street and restaurant food in Thailand is very cheap, so many families are used to either going out to eat or picking up food to take home, rather than cooking. Yet, there are still many families blessed to have a great chef amongst them and often eat home-cooked meals. If you are lucky enough to be living in a homestay with a great cook while studying abroad in Thailand, you're in luck. Always smile and let them know the food is great by exclaiming “aroy maak maak!” That family, especially the cook, will appreciate that immensely.

4. Be Part Of The Family.

Thai people often call people by more familiar titles rather than by their actual names. For instance, in shopping for fruit at an older man’s street produce stand, one could address him as “uncle.” This establishes a friendly connection with that person. If you're unsure of exactly how much older someone is relative to you, the term for older sibling (pee) can be used. The only risk here is making someone who wouldn’t really be your older sibling feel a bit younger. Any younger people can be addressed with the word for younger sibling (norng). In this way, everyone in Thailand is part of one big family.

Thai noodle cuisine

Thai noodle cuisine

Photo by Ashley Houston

3. Show Interest In Any And All Things Thai.

Thai culture is rich in terms of movies, music, sports, and much more. While international media and sports are usually available, it may benefit to take interest in Thai creations and traditions.

2. Be Respectful Of The King.

The King and the Royal family of Thailand are highly revered. In most situations, a quiet and respectful demeanor will suffice. Nobody will ask you to bow down to anything (unless you are actually in the presence of the King). The movie theater experience provides a perfect example of the simple actions required to show respect. Before the previews roll, a song — usually the Thai national anthem — and a video will play in honor of the royal family and all movie-goers are expected to stand in silence for a few moments.

1. Be Respectful Of Buddhist Tradition.

Buddhism is the ubiquitous religion in Thailand. This is evidenced by the countless monuments dedicated to enlightened monks or to the Buddha; the Buddhist temples everywhere; “Buddha images” decorating people’s homes, cars and bodies (jewelry); and the common sight of monks walking amongst everyone else in any town or city. Temple etiquette is somewhat complex and it is good to travel with someone familiar with the cultural taboos. Overall, you will most likely be among people who are forgiving of any slip-ups and no great problems will result if an innocent mistake is made.