The Thai Inferiority Complex
Having lived and worked in Thailand for a number of years, I have formed the opinion that much of the Thai character is driven by a belief that, in general, Thai people as a whole suffer from what can be described as a national Inferiority Complex.
I think there is plenty of evidence in Thai society and culture to support my opinion, but first to define what I mean by an inferiority complex.
This inferiority complex is the tendency of a person to depreciate the worth of themselves in comparison with other people. It is to be unduly sensitive to criticism and thus to adopt a negative attitude towards others.
These characteristics clearly manifest themselves when Thais deal with non-Thais, and often when interacting with each other.
Some might disagree with this opinion, and in fact say that Thais in fact display a Superiority Complex when dealing with people and nations outside their geography and culture, but it is in fact a characteristic of the sufferer of an inferiority complex to over-compensate by bluffing and occasionally resorting to the overtly aggressive. More of this later.
Consider the symptoms and see if the patient does have the condition I describe.
Thais may have real reason to feel inferior to farangs. Physically, Thais are smaller, weaker, suffer more ill-health and have a much shorter life span than the average Westerner. In sports, Thais are unable to compete at an international level except in sports where there are artificial limits imposed, such as in boxing and weight-lifting where Thais can compete against similarly sized opponents. We should not expect to see a Thai world heavyweight boxing champion or an Olympic 100 metre gold runner anytime soon. However, it is true that improvements in health education and increasing GDP is bringing about a taller and stronger young generation. The tennis ace, Paradon, may just well be the start of a new future, but it is the future and not the current nor historical norm..
When farangs enter Thailand they are seen by the average Thai as being superior in physical terms. Many Thais have commented to me on the strength of elderly foreign tourists making an extremely long and arduous plane journey and then walking in the daytime heat and humidity around the various cultural and leisure attractions of the country. At an age when an equivalent Thai would have withdrawn to the village and rarely venturing far from the house, his or her Western peers are still actively engaged in social, public activity. Take a walk around the department stores, ride the river boats, or visit upcountry on an overnight bus and you will see that the average age of the people you meet is quite young indeed, especially if you were to perform the same activities in Farangland. In Thailand, older people are often used to baby-sit the house and/or children.
Notwithstanding how many of Stickman readers prefer the beauty of a Thai girl, the Thais themselves much prefer the farang look. Children are admired for the whiteness of their skin colour; actors, actresses and models are likewise required to be light-skinned. Advertisements and cultural stereotyping reinforce the opinion that the ‘foreign’ look, is more beautiful and desirable than the Thai look.
Thais also feel intellectually inferior to foreigners. For a start, few Thais speak a language other than their own, and those that do will speak it at a very low level. Neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong all speak English to a very high international level. Even in countries such as Burma and Cambodia, I have met ordinary working people whose foreign language skills far outstrip those of the middle-class Thais I live and work with.
The ability to speak a foreign language has little impact on a low class Thai, such as a farmer or up country taxi driver, but from middle class Bangkok Thais up through the higher levels of Thai society there is an awareness that foreign language skills in Thailand are very poor when compared with their peers in other countries. And as Thais increasingly travel overseas for business or leisure this comparison reinforces the inferiority complex.
Another symptom of an inferiority complex is the sacrifice of principle to gain acceptance. In other words, the truth or the right way of behaviour can be ignored if it causes discomfort or upsets the status quo. Just about anybody who has spent time in Thailand will have a pocketful of anecdotes to confirm that this is the situation in the country. Stickman has literally hundreds of submissions from Western gentlemen who have come up against Thai untruthfulness and amoral behaviour in order to avoid unpleasant situations from arising. So much has already been written on the subject that it does not require repeating here.
Linked with this condition is the denial of reality and the separation of motives that is present in persons having an inferiority complex. By this, I mean that a Thai will quite willingly tell you something that is opposite to known facts, even when both you and they have full knowledge of the facts. Your Thai girlfriend will tell you what ever she thinks you want to hear, and she will quite easily be able to justify and rationalise in her own mind this separation of the reality to what she is saying or doing.
A person with an inferiority complex will not take kindly to having this distortion or denial of reality pointed out to them. They consider it a personal injustice and will internalise the blame rather than attempt to argue the veracity of their statements or actions. For a Thai this is evident in the sullenness or withdrawal that they experience when faced with a challenge to their statements or actions by the undeniable evidence of the truth. Your girlfriend will pout, and depending on the depth of her feelings may not speak to you for days on end.
Occasionally, inferiority complexes manifest themselves not as a withdrawal, but as a rebellion against correction, maybe even violent confrontation. The Thai waiter may take months of abuse from his customers and then one day walk into his restaurant and at random fire off a loaded gun. Thai police and immigration officers, people apparently trained to deal with stressful situations, are notoriously likely to take this course of action when they just can no longer internalise the sense of personal injustice that a westerner is usually better equipped to handle. Two weeks ago, a department store security guard shot dead a customer who jumped the bank queue. He didn’t do it because he was a bully, he did it because he could no longer stand her bullying and was unable to rationalise his feelings.
Many Stickmanites will have experienced a mean-spiritedness which is out of keeping with the well-known Thai qualities of grace, calmness, and service. This meanness is not expressed in the lobbies of Thailand’s luxurious five-star hotels, but
it will be found at the immigration counters on the country’s borders by the visa runner. It will be found by the backpacker who is accused by a policemen of dropping a cigarette end. And it will be felt by those whose funds have suddenly
dried up. It is typical of those with a sense of inferiority to be outwardly subservient to those deemed superior while overcompensating by being rude, unfair, and spiteful to those deemed inferior.
It is not just the poor or under-dressed farang who will receive this mean treatment. Witness the demeanour of the hi-so to shop assistants, drivers, and maids as evidence.
There are two other symptoms of an inferiority complex that I believe are present in Thai people.
Firstly, those who feel inferior often do not grasp the big picture of things. They tend to have excessive attention to the little things. Form is more important than content. So for example, you might give somebody a gift, but the wrapping and packaging has to be immaculate, otherwise the recipient may not appreciate your generosity. You may wish to make merit at a temple, but merely putting money into a box or writing out a cheque is insufficient. It has to be accompanied by a big show with many witnesses. A whole ceremony has to be built around the act of giving. You may buy a new house, but it is not enough to invite the new neighbours around for a glass of white wine. There has to be in attendance nine monks for good luck, who will perform a set of rituals that will determine whether or not the new house owner will have good luck or not. These examples are not the actions of a well-rounded person confident in his or her own abilities to succeed in life. It is like the beautifully painted, yet deceptive facades on a Hollywood movie set, there is nothing of substance behind it.
The final symptom of an inferiority complex that I wish to mention is an overly dutiful sense of obedience. I have left this example to last because I believe it goes to the very heart of Thai society and culture.
From the moment a child is born in Thailand it is placed on a ladder of inferiors and superiors. Whether the baby is born to a rice farmer in Isaan or within the highest levels of Thai society it will have its own unique place which cannot be occupied by another. From the very earliest age the child will be taught its position in relation to others. And at the outset it will learn that, in most cases, it is at the bottom of the heap. In other words this person is the most inferior person of all; everybody else is ‘phi’. And this feeling is among the first feelings of awareness as a person that a Thai will know.
The Thai will grow older and will eventually be addressed as ‘phi’ by other Thais. But he or she will always be aware that he or she will remain a ‘nong’ forever, unless living to a very old age and outlasting contemporaries; or by becoming a monk and thus side-stepping the issue for a time. Even joining the monkshood, he will still have other monks superior in status, so the sense of inferiority is unlikely ever to leave him.
Equally for women, even though Thailand is socially enlightened compared to many of its neighbours, in that opportunities in education and careers are available, a woman usually defers to her husband’s wishes, especially in a public or extended family situation..
Thai society is not conducive to individualism, diversity of opinions or promotion of new ideas. These characteristics are more likely to be found in more well-balanced societies, or cultures that display the characteristics of a superiority complex.
Without getting into the current political situation in Thailand, if ever there was a lesson for the average Thai to learn that you shouldn’t rock the boat it is illustrative that a small personal spat between the Prime Minister and a former buddy can develop into a national political crisis.
Yet by promoting a sense of community, obedience, and tradition, a Thai is far more likely to have a sense of inferiority re-enforced within his or her own identity. When this identity is compared with his or her peers, especially if this comparison is done against the Western culture then I believe that an inferiority complex will develop at a national level.
Thais will become physically stronger as economic progress continues. It will take a great effort, however, to raise the intellectual and artistic levels within the country. Although this will happen in most open societies that experience economic surpluses, there may not be the political will to improve those levels to any great degree. In the past an industrious and compliant workforce was necessary to produce cheap agricultural and manufactured goods to drive the export boom. That role may be overtaken by the Chinese which would require the Thais to move up the value-added ladder or into niche markets. This would require better education and an inquisitive spirit which would improve intellectual levels as a by-product, but at this moment in time there seems to be very little government activity geared towards these ends.
As far as social and cultural factors are concerned, I see very little possibility of these changing significantly. Even Bangkok Thais still feel strong affinity with their hometown upcountry where traditional values have strong roots. Culture is intertwined with religion, in a way barely witnessed in the majority of Western countries today. Social economics, with the presence of owner-managers in even the largest of Thai businesses, still favour a small elite controlling a compliant majority.
In conclusion, I believe Thais exhibit the characteristics of an inferiority complex, which is also expressed at a national level. I believe that this complex is so deeply ingrained into the personality of the individual and in the culture of the country that it is likely to continue with little change for many years to come.
A very interesting perspective indeed.