Culture: Working in Thailand – Part 1

Bangkok has a colossal expat community and it is growing every day. People come from all around the world looking for employment opportunities and a chance to live a better life. I’ve certainly found a much more comfortable life than I would have been able to if I had stayed in Scotland and joined my fellow graduates in the hunt for poorly paid entry level jobs. The kind of jobs that you need experience to get experience. I would have been unable to leave my parents’ house for some time without giving up other privileges such as a car or my beloved holiday time. Once I had accepted my first teaching position in Bangkok, I began to research Thailand’s working culture and I have never really stopped learning about it.

When moving to another country for employment, it is critical to try to understand the local culture. Culture, however, is often very difficult to quantify and define. It’s a topic that I studied quite thoroughly whilst in university and subsequently became very interested in. To summarize, culture can be defined as a set of values, ideas, attitudes and behaviours which people who are from a certain society share (Cavusgil et al, 2012: 602). It is imperative to begin to analyse the country’s culture in which you’re looking to relocate to or already live in.

Fortunately, a scholar and IBM employee conducted massive amounts of research, starting in the 1960s. Geert Hofstede became the leading academic voice of culture and created a list of cultural dimensions that should be considered when working and communicating with different cultures.

Authority and Communication

Firstly, and in my opinion, most importantly, is the Thai peoples’ respect for authority. Information flows through a hierarchical chain of command and each rung of the chain possesses its own privileges whilst remaining loyalty to whoever is above them. Members of society who hold a higher rank or are advanced in their years are treated very well and are respected by everyone. A prime example of this can be seen in the language as they use many titles like ‘P’ and ‘Khun’ that show respect to those ranked above them or with seniority. This means that in a workplace, whatever your boss says, you should do. People are expected to do as they are told and try not to question the requests made of them.

Many decisions made in this country are logically questionable and to the Western expat, somewhat backward. My friends and I have often joked that if there is a difficult way to complete something, the Thai people will find the most difficult. One of the best things that I’ve learned to do is to roll with the punches and try to make the best of somewhat irritatingly uncomfortable situations. In Thailand, cool headed people like this are referred to as ‘jai yen’ or cold-hearted.

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At my previous school, I was promoted to head of department which meant having an extraordinary number of meetings with the principal, other department heads and on occasion, some senior board members of the school. From the Western point of view, there were some obvious flaws in how the school was run and we all had suggestions as to how we could improve. Unfortunately, when we did muster the courage to tell our principal our ideas, they fell on deaf ears.

Teaching in Thailand is very rewarding and gratifying as teachers are held in very high regard. I’ve been introduced to friends of friends and immediately they wai you and call you by the title, ‘ajarn’. There’s a gulf in the respect shown here in comparison to the West, where teachers are looked at as people who couldn’t excel in their own fields. The respect to the teachers’ authority therefore means that behaviour is, overall, of a higher standard. Thai students are exceedingly respectful and make the job that bit more enriching.

Short-term versus Long-term Orientation

This cultural dimension refers to how locals refer to the past and deal with the present and future. In other words, how traditional they are and how prudent they are when thinking about the future. Thailand scores relatively low in this category, indicating that they show a lot of respect to their traditions and tend to focus on short-term goals to achieve quick success.

It is this kind of thinking that most likely proves troublesome in Thailand as the future is not considered when decisions are made. When seeking results, little is taken into account other than the immediate success.

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I found this happened many times in the school I used to work in, especially when it came to their recruitment procedure. As you can imagine, there is a high staff turnover rate amongst English teachers in Thai schools as it is somewhat of a nomadic profession. Some people decide that it’s not the career for them or simply they want to move on to another country after only a semester or two. Instead of seeking to keep their teachers by treating them well and giving salary increases, many schools enjoy the high turnover because they can pay inexperienced teachers lower salaries, which keeps the directors financially content.

Since living here, I have changed culturally to assimilate more with the Thai mentality. I find myself living in the moment much more and tend to indulge on spending my money on travelling and experience as opposed to worrying about the future. Perhaps it explains the reason why I’m still in Bangkok after three and a half years, I’m just too busy enjoying myself to think about moving on.

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