Ping-Ko Chiu

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Software Engineer,
Location Technologies @ Apple
pingkochiu [at] gmail.com
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5 January 2021

Working with the Thais

by Ping-Ko Chiu

I’ve been pestering my Thai friends with questions on Thai work culture lately. I have never worked in a traditional Thai environment before so I am genuinely curious. I often hear from my parents and other expats discuss Thai talent, the extent to which you can push workers to their limits, and the loyalty that you can establish with them. Some of these they came to understand and adapt. Many others learned the hard way through departure of employees or business relationships gone awry. Even my Thai friends who have been brought up in the western school of thought found themselves needing to adjust to working in Thailand.

Toey gifted me “Working with the Thais: A guide to managing in Thailand” by Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtavy. Written in 1995, the book has been in existence for as long as I have. Toey cautioned that some of the concepts may be outdated but many of them still hold today. I see a double meaning in “managing” from the subtitle of the book. On the one hand, the book is mostly addressed to expat managers working in Thailand and serves as a guide to managing Thai workers. On the other hand, it could also refer to “coping” as the book goes on to describe many frustrating conflicts between expats and Thais.

One of the things I found most interesting was the respect the book has for Thai culture. The book starts with a caveat about generalizing a culture. It reminds us that although their generalizations wont represent all Thais, some level of generalization is necessary for a foreigner to navigate the waters. In my own experience living in Thailand, Thai workers have sometimes been described as lazy, lacking motivation, unable to follow up on important tasks, or easy to quit. The book takes this with care and attempts to address them by informing the readers of the roots of Thai culture — the social hierarchy that has existed for centuries, the system of patronage, and the tendencies to deescalate conflict. It reminds us of the difficulty for a largely agriculture based society to transition to the manufacturing and the services industry. The sudden surge of westernization meant people have to cope with technologies and methodologies that are foreign to them.

The book also introduces Thai words that are cornerstones of Thai behavior such as Yim Yae, Nam Jai, Kiad, and Kreng Jai. In particular, a few chapters are dedicated to how to deal with Kreng Jai, the overly polite attitude in consideration of others. The authors honed in on the very common problem between expats and Thais whereby expats feel as if the Thais are not vocal enough in meetings when in fact they do have opinions. The book provides several solutions such as reminding the workers to “mai dong Kreng Jai” or not to be too polite in meetings or to go around the table to give everybody a chance to voice their opinions. Through speaking the local language and by using a term that is central to Thai behavior, one is able to deliver a message in a familiar format that goes right to the heart. This, in my mind, is building bridges between various cultural norms.

All in all, this is a very insightful book on Thai work culture. Although slightly outdated, the book teaches how to deal with conflicts through understanding and communication — a relevant lesson for all of us even today.

tags: Book