Splitting An Atom
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I would like to introduce you to a statement made by Albert Einstein that I find highly relevant in the context of Thai – Farang relations…
“It is more difficult to shatter a preconceived opinion than to split an atom”
Having read all but a few readers’ submissions ever made available through Stick’s website, I couldn’t help but notice those ever repeating, often indicting rants about Thai people, Thai society, and Thai culture in general.
Just like probably all but a few foreign visitors to the LOS I have been confronted with situations and opinions within Thai society that I found at least highly irritating, even disturbing sometimes. I have been through those often on this website described feelings of frustration and incomprehensibility about Thais’ way of reasoning and doing things more than once.
Having said this, I would like to comment on some what I believe to be the most frequently repeating causes for misunderstanding and frustration in any Thai – Farang relationship…
I am absolutely convinced that the majority of problems between Thais and farangs that have been described in numerous readers’ submissions on this website could have been defused if not even resolved if at least one of the involved parties would have had a greater understanding for the respective underlying cultural motives.
Let me elaborate…
The most common stereotype in any societal context probably is “They are like us”. This is called ethnocentrism. While I cannot believe that any farang visitor to the LOS, no matter which country he/she comes from, could actually be ethnocentric enough to completely deny the obvious cultural differences, I do believe that many choose to relativize or even ignore them to some extent.
Every society has developed typical norms and practices that are intended to best cope with the environment and the tasks at hand. Such norms are shared, and the resulting practices are followed by a majority of people in that society. They shape typical behavior. They also make up expectations about appropriate behavior of others. They can be described as “culture standards”.
Such norms and behavior patterns are learned and internalized. Much of our behavior has become habitual and unconscious, automatic. “It goes without saying”. In everyday life or normal course of action there is little need to talk or think about them.
We all adapt our behavior to the dominant norms and expectations. We follow the usual practices, and the expectations of people we deal with, in order to be effective and successful. Within a society those norms and practices are considered “normal”.
In contact with outsiders they may be less normal, less known or understood, less practiced, seen as “strange”, or may even be unacceptable. For outsiders or “strangers” hidden rules often become hidden barriers.
An outsider, a foreigner, has a higher probability of success if he / she knows the culture standards and hidden rules, and adopts them or adjusts his / her behavior according to the circumstances and possibilities.
In contacts with others we experience similarities and differences in everyday behavior.
Research has shown that differences are largest between nations. They can even be measured and described. We tend to sense the differences more than the similarities. We also tend to see differences in others rather than in us. As a result of this judgmental perceptions occur frequently and habitually. They reflect learned behavior and reactions.
If we judge what we experience as being negative or causing problems, we are tempted to see the others as negative and causing problems. But it is the difference between both of us that complicates cooperation, not “their” position or behavior per se. One side on its own would normally be just fine. The problem is always one between both sides.
The mere fact of differences alone, but more so our judgements make cooperation difficult.
Culture constitutes the “mental software” shared by a group of people. Culture is the collective programming of the mind. It influences perception, way of thinking and judging, being, acting, and interacting.
One could argue that culture is like a theatre performance. There are parts we see and parts we don’t see. On stage, we can see the actors, hear their words and watch the action. Backstage however, there is a lot going on that we never see and are not aware of. Culture remains largely invisible and unconscious. It constitutes the collective response to the environment and historical experiences. Culture is transferred in a social context, first of all in the family, later in the school system, in companies, and in other societal systems.
Values are the core of any culture. They reach deep and affect all aspects of life.
Values express a preference how it should be. A culture defines and identifies itself through its shared values. They are internalized, and therefore invisible. They remain remarkably stable over time. Due to different values people from different cultures or countries often have “problems of compatibility”
Surveys across many countries have shown significant value differences. The Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede became famous for his description of cultural differences by the means of five “dimensions”. He described those dimensions as:
Power Distance / Power Acceptance:
The extent to which the less powerful members of a society or organization expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.
Individualism / Collectivism:
Individualism describes how people are supposed to look after themselves and their immediate family only, with only few ties beyond those of the nuclear family. “I” societies.
Collectivism describes how people belong to strong, cohesive in-groups or larger collectives which are supposed to look after them in exchange for loyalty. “We” societies
Masculinity / Femininity:
Masculinity describes how dominant values in society are achievement and success. “Win – lose” societies.
Femininity describes dominant values in society with both men and women caring for others and quality of life. “Win – Win” societies
The extent to which people feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations. This is expressed in a need for clear rules and predictability, in the creation of beliefs and institutions that try to avoid unclear situations.
Long Term Orientation / Short Term Orientation:
Long Term Orientation describes the fostering of virtues oriented towards future rewards.
Short Term Orientation stands for the fostering of virtues related to the past and present.
Thailand society can definitely be described as very collectivistic and feminine, with high power distance and relatively low uncertainty avoidance.
The US, Down Under, and the majority of countries in Western Europe however are far more masculine (except Scandinavia), and individualistic, with far less power distance (except e.g. France) and more uncertainty avoidance…
To simplify matters lets just look at the differences between the US and Thailand…
The US score much lower in terms of “Power Distance”, compared to Thailand.
Whereas children in low power distance societies are raised to express their own will, in high power distance societies children are raised to be dependant on authority figures.
Parents, Elders, Superiors and others in power are looked up to and met with respect. It is perceived as risky and difficult to question for clarification or dispute orders given by a superior. It is expected to accept orders or statements by a superior or older person without comment or further question. Open disagreement with a superior is very difficult or not done at all. It may at most be said in indicated in indirect ways. Unlike in low power distance societies, superiors are not perceived as partners. Furthermore inequality in society and organizations is widely accepted, as those in power are entitled to privileges.
A simple example for this would be that in a high power distance society as Thailand or also France are, members of management in a company are expected to show their status openly. Be it by showing off status symbols like driving a fancy car, or dealing with subordinates in a “from top to bottom” manner. The boss should have the status of a benevolent father, whose decisions and opinions should be accepted and followed without questioning or openly shown doubt.
In more egalitarian (low power distance) cultures members of management and operational superiors are looked upon by subordinates as one of their own. People are far less hesitant to confront their superiors personally and directly, as they basically only accept their superior’s higher hierarchical position as an operational necessity in the system.
If you consider these factors you might understand more easily why the Thai schooling and university system is probably rather inefficient compared to Western standards. Whereas in the West constructive criticism and feedback are considered as extremely important for finding the best possible solution for a problem, or resolving conflicts in the teaching or working environment, these concepts just don’t apply so much in Thailand. Opinions and orders of superiors are accepted and hardly openly questioned, as it is a cultural norm not to do so. Anything else would just be considered inappropriate, overly blunt, or very impolite.
One can now definitely argue about the efficiency of such code of conduct. From my point of view I find it to be very counterproductive in almost any kind of relationship. However, does this viewpoint of mine automatically imply that it is wrong? I don’t think so, even if I had great difficulties being faced with such circumstances. That however, is due to my “cultural programming”, and not due to the fact that what I am used to is superior to the system in which others have been brought up.
We need to remember than any feelings of moral superiority will often show in our behavior. Cultural barriers are not normally so great that partners are unable to decode the implicit message of prejudice.
Okay…so now we have had a look at the first dimension. But how about the others…? Let’s look at individualism versus collectivism.
The US score extremely high on individualism. Actually, they are top of the list. Thailand however is a collectivistic society, just as so many other societies in South East Asia are.
In individualistic societies children are educated for independence from their family of origin, whereas in collectivistic societies children are educated for life-long relationship with their family. Obligations to extended family or society exist and
are attached great importance to. The Bread Winner has to share with the extended family.
People are rather “We” conscious, as they identify and belong to their in-group.
Whereas in individualistic countries people tend to trust others, irrespective of origin, in collectivistic societies members of other groups are distrusted. Value standards differ for in and out groups. People are concerned about shame, opposed to individualistic societies concern about guilt. There is a low tolerance for differences, conflicts are being suppressed.
Values as fairness, initiative, honesty, freedom for every individual are not held as highly as in individualistic societies. Yes can have many different meanings.
Recently the author of a readers’ submission complained how every conflict you have in Thailand boils down to you being the outsider and them being the Thais, the masters of their kingdom…
“You are guilty, because you disturb their elaborate Hobbit system, you don't conform. I sometimes have (very unfortunately) to deal in business matters with Thais and I often find that they are just interested in one deal, where they get a decent profit out of the foreigner and give him a sloppy service or mediocre merchandise. It is hard to find people here who are interested in a good, continuous business relationship.”
Well…not much of a surprise there, considering the different set of values Thai people adhere to compared to our Western ideology. As a farang you are just not part of their in-group. Due to the fact that people in collectivistic societies in Thailand tend to subconsciously distrust anyone who is not a member of their in-group, especially if you are not even one of their countrymen, they will make not a big effort to build a continuous business relationship with you. Fairness and honesty are not considered as very important. While such viewpoint would probably outrage most “Western-thinking” people, for the Thais this is generally an accepted and normal concept. Collectivist countries are simply far less tolerant towards foreigners than individualistic countries…
Another example…! Looking at “Bill Smith’s” submission from September 9th, “Do farang have any rights to self defence?” He wrote:
“The thieves, instead of brushing themselves off and running away, first stared at us in amazement, and then began shouting in Thai. Suddenly we were surrounded by angry Thais, most of them either street people or moto-taxi drivers. Within a few moments, a lone Thai Police officer showed up on his motorbike, and broke up the crowd, but the Thais were all still screaming and shouting, and pointing their fingers at me.”
“The English-speaking police officer seemed to be acting now as a mediator or negotiator acting on behalf of the thieves. I was outraged and I told him so. I made all sorts of threats, and I demanded that he arrest the thieves, to which he said “cannot, no witnesses”.”
Same principle here…
Farang is not member of in-group, so there is not much solidarity to expect from bystanders. Farang is an outsider, and therefore just mustn’t expect to be treated fairly or at least by the same standards as a Thai would in his position.
Last but not least one of many examples given by Ben Dover of his seemingly never-ending superiority-fuelled rants about Thai people’s stupidity…
“This is how we do. We always do contract this way.” I said, “Just because you always do it your way does NOT make it correct.” Once again, the stupid ‘Thai way’ rears its ugly head.
Needless to say, on my next trip to Phuket, I will NOT be renting from that same jerk. Why these Thai businesspeople have no concept of the satisfied repeat customer is truly incomprehensible and beyond me.”
Well, if good Ben Dover had known a bit more about the Thai mindset associated to the underlying cultural values, he might have not elevated his blood pressure in that situation, just like in so many others before…
Like it or not, even the most basic values that are often taken for granted and looked upon as universally valid anywhere differ to such a great extent that you just cannot possibly apply them in a foreign cultural setting, expecting the same reactions or results that you are used to.
All of us who confront ourselves with different cultures should either make our lives easier by accepting this fact of life, or prepare for a never-ending struggle of misunderstanding, frustration and incomprehensibility. Billions and billions of dollars have been lost throughout the past and are still being lost in international business due to mutual ignorance of one another’s cultural mindset.
Okay…enough said about this. Let’s move on to the next dimension.
Let’s look into masculinity in society opposed to femininity…
The US is a very masculine society, whereas Thais are quite the opposite.
People originating from masculine societies consider independence as ideal. Self-interest, ambition, and pride are important, and people are rather achievement orientated. People live in order to work. Big is beautiful. There is disdain for the unfortunate, and admiration for the successful achiever.
In feminine societies however interdependence is ideal. Solidarity and caring for others is important, and work is considered a life’s necessity in order to live. People are sympathetic towards the unfortunate, and rather jealous towards successful achievers.
How many times have I read on this website how people described Thai’s as a lazy bunch?
How often have people complained about their girlfriend or wife sending money to their extended family, them using it for purchasing an endless stream of superfluous luxury goods instead of investing into more substantial investments…?
I had a Philippine born girlfriend myself here in my home country, who has lived here since her being 4 years of age. Even her, having been raised in Western society, however under obvious strong cultural influence by her parents, still makes a point in handing over a part of her salary to her parents, even though they are both employed and make a proper living. They are not rich by any means, but they are also definitely not dependant on their daughters’ financial support. Still, it has always been an unwritten rule for my ex-girlfriend to support her parents, even if her money was sometimes wasted for daddy going out boozing and gambling with friends…
If you enter a relationship with a girl from a feminine society, even more so from a collectivistic society, you better get used to the idea of her handing over her own or even your money to her family at times. It is expected of her, and considered as appropriate and a good child’s duty to do so.
Let’s now look at uncertainty avoidance…
The US score low…
People from uncertainty avoiding societies feel uncomfortable in unstructured situations. There is a big need for laws and rules, safety and security measures (does US homeland security ring a bell?). People are more anxious and suffer from higher stress. There is an inner urge to work hard. Showing of emotions and aggression is accepted, which makes behavior easier to predict.
Thais score relatively higher…
People are feeling okay in unstructured situations; each day is taken as it comes; hard work is not a virtue per se; there is lower stress; one should not show emotions and aggression; behavior is more difficult to predict.
I believe this can partly explain the chaos us visitors to the kingdom can witness almost everywhere in daily life in Thailand, compared to the structured and organized lifestyle we are used to from back home. We are just used to living within a structured system, with clear and easily identifiable boundaries, whereas the Thai just put less emphasis on it. To them, it is just not as important as to us. So what…? Live and let live I would say. Learn to cope with it, or leave, as you will never be able to change this.
Finally, let’s look at long-term versus short-term orientation…
The US is rather short-term oriented, meaning among many things…
There is belief in an absolute truth, only one opinion can be right. Communication is clear, unmistakable and logical. Information given should be true, even to a stranger.
The Thai are highly long-term oriented, meaning…
There are many truths, depending on time and context.
Ambiguous communication includes various possibilities.
Information given should serve one’s own purpose, particularly to a stranger, may even be misleading.
For each and every single one of the 5 cultural dimensions above there are endless numbers of examples to demonstrate the big differences in the way life is being led and looked at in societies of differing cultural backgrounds.
Considering and expecting all these differences when dealing with foreign cultures can definitely help a lot to make one’s own life easier. If you know what to expect and what to watch out for, you will not be taken by surprise so badly.
I do realize that I have taken advantage of a lot of generalization within this submission, and I also realize that not just any person fits into the schemes I have described on these pages. However, I truly believe that if we all make an attempt to be more tolerant towards different ways of thinking, accept more and judge less, we will make our lives far easier and our confrontations with foreign cultures more worthwhile and enjoyable. Instead of being frustrated or even angry about experiencing “inefficiencies” or misunderstandings, it might just be better to look at the situation as a challenge to overcome.
Personally, having just recently learned about the impact of different cultural values and mindset in a business and personal context alike believe these basic principles should be taught to every kid starting from elementary school level.
Particularly politicians come to my mind when thinking of people who could use this knowledge most. If there were more awareness for even only the most basic rules of this cultural “game”, there might not have been another war in the Persian Gulf. One cannot just copy and paste a societal value system on another society or nation, yet politicians the world over never seem to cease trying. The resulting bloodbaths we can watch daily on TV…
The world’s getting smaller and smaller every day, and even most people who never leave their homes to travel abroad are almost daily confronted with the different values of other cultures. Be it so by community contacts with immigrants or tourists in their hometown, or just simply through the media. Culture is all around us, and probably constitutes one of the most complex issues of life to deal with, even without us consciously realizing most of the times…!
If any of this has made you curious, I recommend you to look at the work of Geert Hofstede on intercultural cooperation. Just google it and you will find plenty about it.
And remember…the one thing that we all share is our difference to each other…!
Any feedback welcome and appreciated!