8. Fun and pleasure orientation
Taken from: Suntaree Komin, Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns, National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), Bangkok 1991, ISBN 974-85744-8-2, pp. 1-2. References and tables are available in the original. Typing errors edited.
Thailand has been known as the ‘Land of Smile’, a stereotyped image that comes along with the much-talked-about myth of the Thai being easy-going, enjoying the very day routine pleasures life with a happy carelessness, not letting troubles touch them easily, viewing life as something to be enjoyed not endured, and would not do anything that is not Sanuk (to have fun, to enjoy oneself and have a good time). They are easily bored or Buua, not because of having nothing to do like the Westerners, but because the repetitive activities they are doing are not Sanuk. They therefore lack the “stick-to-it-ive-ness” or the serious commitment and sustained level of hard (and often unpleasant) work, which is essentially required for the success of industrial undertakings. They are generally lethargic, lazy, unaggressive, and fond of having fun and leisure.
To which extent that this myth with all these traits are true and understood in the right perspective? Evidently, many writings of this myth are derivations from the primary sources of Ruth Benedict (1943) and Embree’s (1950) anthropological observations, and the application and implication of which should be subjected to further verification and analysis. First of all, the general conclusion of the Thai as being lethargic, lazy, unaggressive, and fun-leisure loving, is meaningless. It is almost the standardized description of any agricultural, non-industrialized society, be it Thai, Indonesian, or Micronesians in the Pacific Islands, etc. They are often the common general attributes given to the more relaxed way of life of the rural community dwellers, as opposed to the more hectic way of life of the competitive industrialized city dwellers. Culturally, it is meaningless in not being able to heir distinguish the Thai cultural traits from other cultures.
Empirical data show that most of this myth are not true. It catches only the outward presentation of the “fun” and the “lightness” approach to things of the Thai. This myth can be looked at and explained from two aspects: the abhorance of hard-work, and the fun-leisure and “smiling” aspects. For the issue of abhorance of hard-work, research data showed that the private sector and the lower class in fact did work hard, and ranked work over fun-loving and pleasure. It is the Bangkokians and particularly the government officials who preferred fun-loving over work, and generally known to be very laxed and inefficient in job performance, as will be described later. As for the fun-leisure and “smiling” aspect, it can be explained as the resulting behavioral pattern from keeping a pleasant and smooth face-to-face interpersonal interaction, which is a higher value. In so doing, most Thai social interactions are pleasant, light, might be superficial, yet fun and humorous in nature. Joyful behaviors can be observed in any Thai party, which is usually characterized by small talks, gossips, jokes, teasing one another, making fun of all kinds of non-personal inconsequential things and events, including playing with words, using puns and kham phuan (reverse of syllables for taboo words), etc. in a clever, humorous and amusing fashion. Imitations of Chinese and Indians speaking Thai are always good for a laugh. These “light” behaviors, whether or not as defense mechanism as analyzed by Mulder, serve to maintain the joyful “front”. And the Thai do genuinely enjoy it. Besides these essential mechanisms of the sol-called “social cosmetics” which are so deeply rooted that they appear as genuine presentation to project the “smiling” image, it is also a projection of the basic inclination of being kind, generous, sympathetic towards other human beings, strangers and foreigners included. For instance, it is not uncommon to find a Thai traveling with his friend in a tour van, offering sweets or fruits that he is having with his friend, to the foreigners who happened to be sitting nearby, a share of his joy of eating, as if they were from his own community. Some foreigners might feel uneasy with such show of ‘familiarity’ treatment. For the Thai, it is nothing special, nor having any purpose, but just a friendly gesture, and not expecting anything in return. Definitely, the Thai are not xenophobic, which could possibly be due to the fact that the Thai have never been colonized, and thus adding to the friendly interactions with foreigners.
Is this “smiling” and friendly interaction, with lots of fun and joyful behavior, a true indicator of valuing fun and pleasure as an end in itself, or is it a necessary means to function effectively in Thai society? The research findings suggested that this fun-pleasure value functions as the imperative mechanism, as means to support and maintain the more important interpersonal interaction value. This is further substantiated, when asked “Life is short, so one should enjoy as much as one can”, the results show that there are more disagreements to the statement than agreement (Table 7.21). Particularly with regards to planning for the future, the majority of the respondents disagreed to the statement that: “Future is uncertain, so there is no need for planning for one’s future” (Table 7.22). The results put doubts to Ayal’s statement that the “Thai view life as something to enjoy here and now with very little thought about the future” (Ayal, 1963, p. 47).
Altough from a different analytical perspective, Mulder (1978) also views this value of fun and relaxation as a necessary means. He recognizes the typical Thai relaxed interaction, where one is relaxed and enjoys the pleasant atmosphere and those joyful behaviors—which is definitely sanuk—to the point that he states that “the Thai are masters of relaxation” (Mulder, 1978, p. 103). Regardless of the different purposes of function, the end result is the easy-going, relaxed, and superficial interaction, with limited revelation of the individual psychological depth.
Every Day Life Concerns and Worries
Despite the pleasant, relaxed and joyful behaviors as their everyday life means of interactions, the Thai as human beings do have their concerns and worries. What occupy their minds in their daily existence? If one takes the cognitive theory of thought and action which postulates that thinking, attitudes, concerns and feeling, etc, are more likely to be manifested at the action level, and vice versa, an inspection of what people talk about and worry about n their everyday life activities and concern, might reveal their underlying cognition. Although it is true that not every single human behavior directly reveals one’s true intent and aspiration, but as an aggregate of behavioral categories and trend, it probably would not be inaccurate.
Who is indeed more fun-oriented and personal comfort oriented, and what kind of worries and concerns that occupy the mind of the Thai samples? The sample of the rural Thai were asked to indicate “What topics that they usually about, and how often they talk about those topics in a week’s time”. The results show that, while peasants mainly talked about matters of earning a living, government officials talked more about communist threats (the major concern of the autocratic military government a few years back), one’s personal matters, one’s debts, and the administrative problems in the offices (Table 7.23). It is even clearer when asked in an open-ended question, about what was worrying them at the period of data collection. Content analysis of the responses shows that, while government officials great differed from the peasants in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th major priority of worries. While the peasants worried about problems in farming and business, problems of security and problems of development; the government officials primarily worried about their personal problems, problems in the offices, and problems of one’s debts, in that order (Table 7.24). The data indirectly support the value data on fun, pleasure and work, showing who is indeed more fun and personal comfort oriented, and who is more concern about development problems.
Fun-Pleasure Orientation and Differential Perception of Development Needs
The fact that subconsciously the Thai peasants reveal more concern than the government officials in matters dealing with community development is very revealing. The value priority clearly shows that the government officials value fun and pleasure more than task and work achievement, whereas peasants show the reverse. Congruently, it should not be surprising although unfortunately so, to find the peasants concern about development problems more than the government officials. It is a known fact among civil servants and businessmen in the community that when a higher-up government official comes to town, it is imperative that he be entertained with all kinds of fund and fairs, food and girls—the Thai phrase of Liang doo poo suua (to be welcomed and entertained with all pleasurable comforts). Money is dumped and spent. Favors and pleasures are the major concerns. In the process, development concern in the community is probably the last thing that comes to mind.
These different cognitions resultingly reflect in the different perceptions of the community development needs, particularly between the administrators as policy makers in varying degrees, and the peasants who are to be developed or for whom development should be aimed. The different perceptions of development needs usually constitute as one of the major reasons for the failure of development projects. Take for example, in the Northeastern region which is the poorest and most arid region of Thailand, the peasants perceived water resources as their first priority development need, the government officials perceived public health services as top priority, and so on (Table 7.25). It is evident that even the local government officials who were close to the reality, still showed a differential perception, let along those development policy makers in Bangkok, who hardly set their foot in the rural community. It is therefore understandable, when asked about the impact of development projects, whether development projects have reached the village community, and whether they were congruent with what the peasants need, the results show that about 40% replied that development projects did reach the community but were not needed, with an equal percentage of successful development projects. The question is how can a concrete development project, important for the development of the community, fail to assure more than the fifty percent chance level of success.