Understanding Thai Culture
To me Thailand has always been an exciting mysterious place. Trying to figure out why things are what they are, and why they do what they do can be a real challenge. Many things look completely alien to us Westerners. For holidaymakers this isn't really expected to give much thought, maybe preferred even, but if you have interests in Thailand then you should make the effort to give it some thought. I don't claim to be an expert on Thai culture, but having been married to a Thai, and have a beautiful daughter to show for it, I do have first hand experience.
Thailand's nothing like…. or is it?
When people experience new things, we always look for a comparison to place it in our minds. Compare Thailand to the place you call home and you'll find many differences, some social behaviour might seem very odd. I have always used a reference framework that I am familiar with as a comparison, a time I can picture vividly and is much closer to Thailand, "the time of my (grand)parents". I am one that believes people everywhere exhibit similar (social) behaviourial traits if they're in the same stage of social-economical development. An extended version of the often used, "in the end people are the same all over".
I usually discard quite a few things most people will call typical "Thai culture" as being typically tied to a nationality. Insert any other nationality if you desire so. Go back in time to when there was no social security to speak of and the landscape was predominantly agricultural in your own (Western) country. You will find things similar to Thailand, where they first seemed completely at odds with each other. Things fit surprisingly well for the time period of my (grand)parents in my case. It was a time where the place of the family unit in society, parents-offspring relationship, education, influence of religion, even the importance of face (what else have you?) all were pretty much similar. Of course it's a bit more complicated, but I find this as good a starting point as any, trying to figure out why things go the way they are going in Thailand.
As with most developing countries/societies, Thailand, as opposed to developed countries, has a hierarchical society. It shows in their language, as there has to be a superior and inferior. For us it's more the activity that determines how we address people we interact with. In Thailand, not so. Generally on an even playing field age is the deciding factor, the elder being the superior. Even more so within the family. The social pressure for offspring to serve, support and obey their parents is as strong as our concept of unconditional parental love and support for our offspring. A Thai has been brought up and engrained with the idea to show obedience, support and be grateful for their parents to have granted them life. We would call it emotional blackmail, but is it really that much different from what we're doing but the other way around? A Thai would call our notion of unconditional parental love and support as being emotional blackmail from the offspring! And to be fair, I've seen plenty examples back home.
A lot of things "Thai" show signs of Buddhist influences. The reverence of age, value placed on humbleness, kindness and trying to preserve harmony to name a few. The latter is the most interesting and confusing one at that. Keeping harmony can easily equate to maintaining the status quo and conflict avoidance. Add to this the value placed on being kind, and we have arrived with the phenomenon of kreng jai, which probably translates best as telling white lies as to not hurt someone's feelings (out of kindness) <I'd dispute that translation and certainly lies are not necessarily part of it. I'd say simply that kreng jai is deferring to someone of higher status – Stick>. Thais have other indirect and more subtle systems of getting the truth across to balance everything out. In Thai-farang relationships, these systems are usually not in place, potentially causing confusion and might I say, pave the roads for abuse.
Concept of face
A lot has been said about this and it's probably what causes most confusion with Westerners. We all know the concept of face and reputation, but Thais seem to take it to another level entirely. Where is it coming from? First of all I tend to think that if you haven't got anything, what else do you have but face and reputation? In a society where traditionally you depend on a tight knit social structure for your survival or well-being, you better be in good standing and your reputation may be your only bargaining tool. In a way this is again not entirely different from what it was like a few generations ago in most Western countries.
For us it is alien to be untruthful, but whether placing kindness over being truthful is as bad is at sounds to us remains debatable. Most Westerners would probably go as far (acceptable lying) as being polite, Thais take it up a few notches as face is valued higher. In essence, we make the same decisions on a daily basis, but draw the line elsewhere.
I don't pretend to have figured it all out, or explained everything in detail, but I do hope to have given someone the tools to try and make sense of things happening around them in Thailand. Or at least try to provide a different vantage point from where to start exploring Thai culture. Some things might even be deemed as old-fashioned, or not up to date, but that's the case with traditional Western values as well. It can't hurt though to know where they / we are coming from though. Some might even argue that's where it all starts, understanding where you're coming from yourself!
I like the bit where you mention that when it comes to Thai / farang relationships not all of the same rules apply which can cause problems. This is oh so true!