This wasn’t at all the plan. I was supposed to have quit work last September, travel around the world and land in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, living off of savings for another blissful 6 months… But sometimes life takes a detour. So it was that I found myself on a short contract in Bangkok. Living and working in Cambodia for the better part of 10 years, I assumed that office work in Thailand wouldn’t be that much of a change. Silly rabbit! Those office trix are for kids…
So based on my truly limited experience (by which I cannot claim to have even scratched the surface of the Thai psyche) and with the help of a book lent to me by a colleague about working with Thais, here are a few random observations regarding the Thai workplace from my short stint here:
The company is your family. Thais seem to value a workplace where s/he feels at home — one which operates like one big, happy family. After all, we do spend more time with our workmates than with family or friends. I found this true of my staff as well. They tended to eat together, take trips together, work and play together and generally look out for each other. This family concept spills over into work relationships. “The boss is expected to provide direction, control, protection as well as emotional support, looking after the needs of his colleagues and staff, much like a prosperous father might do”. I noticed the same thing in Cambodia, where there was an emphasis (rightly or wrongly) on personal support rather than institutional support. So in most instances, traditional Thais might tend to avoid openly expressing themselves or being assertive with their boss. Personally, I’ve always kept my home world and work world separate, but that’s just me. However, the Thai staff seemed eager to talk about their homes, children, spouses and vacations (with all the photos to prove it!) and once I started chit-chatting more, I noticed that the staff seemed much more at ease with me.
- Task accomplishment vs. relationship conflicts. As a true ENTJ personality type (aka The Field Marshal), I tend to be focused on results and have been known to execute the occasional eye-roll when things aren’t just so. But showing anger or frustration openly in the workplace is apparently a no-no. While expats may view these as signs of a dedicated worker, Thais tend to see this behavior as arrogant, independent and pushy.
- Sharing in the decision-making process.
The book asserts that Thai culture doesn’t encourage daring, making mistakes or taking initiative. That’s what the boss is paid to do. After all, he’s the risk-taker, shown by the fact that he left his home country to move to a totally new environment!
- Thailand isn’t called the “Land of Smiles” for nothing. I’ve read countless travel blogs where travelers note how friendly Thais are. However, there are lots of reasons for the smile. A smile can mean “I know I did something wrong” to “I disagree with you but you’re the boss so I’m not going to say anything”. I’ve experienced the ‘Asian smile’ in Cambodia, where I’ve seen expats get upset at locals for smiling when the situation seemingly called for seriousness, not understanding that an enigmatic smile masks a multitude of emotions.
- Kreng Jai. Apparently, there is no equivalent translation in English for this term, although the literal translation is ‘awe heart’ or ‘deferential heart’. It refers to an attitude ‘whereby an individual holds back in situations where there is the potential for discomfort or conflict’. It’s related to not wanting to lose face and at the same time, helping someone else save face.
I had a taste of this when in my first week on the job, I organized a brainstorming marketing meeting with some of the local staff. Ideas were thrown around and a plan was developed with seeming enthusiasm. It was only much later that one of the staff told me why a certain promotion I came up wouldn’t work. I guess kreng jai kept her from telling me at the time that my idea wasn’t good, and only later, when she felt more comfortable with me, did she tell me what she really thought.
- Culture affecting work habits. The book had an interesting take on this. It puts forward that since Thailand was for centuries an agricultural society, farmers didn’t need to work steadily but rather in bursts depending on the agricultural cycle. Likewise, urban workers put in a flurry of last-minute effort before a deadline and relax between jobs instead of working in a steady stream. Interesting, but perhaps too simplistic an explanation? Another example of culture affecting work ethic is the way Thai schools rely on copying and rote learning.
I tried to learn Khmer with its more than 70 combinations of consonants, dependent vowels and independent vowels and understand why memorization and endless copying is used in lots of Asian schools. However, does that discourage analytical thinking? Relying on doing things the same way they’ve always been done instead of looking for ways to innovate? A third example is also school-related. In class, students are rewarded for giving “correct” answers, and there’s not much opportunity for independent thought or “what if” scenarios. Which is why in a Western-style brainstorming session, Thais may hold back from offering up partial or wild ideas, opting to remain quiet instead.
I don’t know that all of this is true. It’s unfair to make blanket statements about an entire nation of people. The Thais I worked with were fun, polite and interesting individuals, although admittedly at times hard to understand. How culture and background affect the way we work is definitely a fascinating topic.
Thankfully, it wasn’t all work. Of course, I ate my way through Bangkok. I also managed to inject a reluctant modicum of culture into my stay. One afternoon, I visited the house of Jim Thompson, an American spy / army officer / architect / merchant who helped revitalize the Thai silk industry in the 50s and 60s. To add an aura of mystery to the story, he disappeared while going for a walk in the Malaysian Highlands. A visit to his house, a compound of 6 traditional, dark wood Thai houses filled with Asian antiques, along with surrounding gardens, is a pleasant way to spend a leisurely hour or two.
Another afternoon was spent at a bookbinding class. I know, random, right? But since forever, I’ve loved everything leather, paper and metal. I was reticent at first, when I discovered that the class would be held around a table in the café of a Marriott. But soon enough, the instructor arrived (reminding me not a little of Franck the Wedding Planner from the Father of the Bride movies) and our little group set off creasing, cutting, stamping and stitching. This was Arts & Crafts on steroids, people.
Alas, it’s with bittersweet memories (and a few extra kilos) that I bid farewell to Bangkok, City of Angels. I feel like I barely knew ye…
Travel tips: (1) The Jim Thompson House is an easy walk from the National Stadium BTS station. Admission is only 100 Baht. Come prepared with a pedicure as you’ll need to remove your shoes for part of the tour. There is no photography allowed inside the houses and a lovely café, koi pond and high-end gift shop round out the premises. (2) The bookbinding class was put on by Reeves Bindery. Reeves is Thai with hesitant English, and learned his craft in Poland. He not only teaches, but makes gorgeous books-to-order in his Ayutthaya studio. When he found out I’d be in the class, he very kindly arranged for an advanced student with perfect English to come translate for me. (3) While the class would’ve been worth it even at the regular price, I scored a deal through Ensogo, the Thai equivalent of Groupon. With the social-buying business model popping up in so many countries, consider signing up for one a few weeks before your next vacation, especially if you’ll be staying a week or more. There are deals to be had, often at 50% off regular prices, for everything from local attractions and hotels to high end cuisine and activities. Deals are often available for use starting a week or two after they’re advertised, so it’s best to sign up in advance of your trip.