Thai boy

2. Grateful relationship 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.


For a culture in which relationship is also very important besides “ego”, it is not surprising to find a number of relationship related values emerged and secured high ranking orders in the cognitive systems of the people. In general, the presentations of most Thai interactions are honest and sincere, and the Thai are bound for sincere and deep reciprocal relationships. And the deepest one is the psychologically invested Bunkhun relationship, as opposed to the “etiquettical” or “transactional” relationship. Bunkhun (indebted goodness) is a psychological bond between someone who, out of sheer kindness and sincerity, renders another person the needed helps and favours, and the latter’s remembering of the goodness done and his ever‐readiness to reciprocate the kindness. The Bunkhun relationship is thus based on the value of gratitude. Therefore, this value orientation is characterized by the highly valued Grateful quality in a person, and by the patterns of Bunkhun or grateful relationship.

Reciprocity of kindness, particularly the value of being Grateful is a highly valued characteristic trait in Thai society. It therefore emerges on the Thai value list, but does not emerge on the American value list. This clearly suggests that the cognition with regard to relationship of these two cultures has a basic difference. The Thai have been socialized to value this Grateful (Katanyuu) quality in a person. A person should be grateful to persons who render Bunkhun (goodness, helps, favors, etc.) to him. By being Grateful, it implies two aspects—Roo Bunkhun, which means to know, acknowledge, or constantly conscious and bear in heart of the kindness done; and Tob thaen bunkhun, which means to reciprocate the kindness whenever there are opportunities. It is an exchange relation that is not bound by time nor distance. Although the person, who renders help, kindness, and favors, is usually done without expectation of anything in return, the obligated person must be Grateful. And Bunkhun must be returned, often on a continuous basis and in a variety of ways, because Bunkhun should not and cannot be measured quantitatively in material terms. It is an ongoing, binding of good reciprocal feeling and lasting relationship. Therefore, being Grateful to Bunkhun constitutes the root of any deep, meaningful relationship and friendship—be it grateful bond towards one’s parents, or to a relative who supports one through school, or a teacher who provides one with knowledge, or a good friend who helps one out at times of troubles, etc. Certainly, there are degrees of Bunkhun, depending largely on the subjective perception of the obligated person, the degree of need, the amount of help, and the degree of concern of the person who renders help. But what is important is the fact that the Thai are brought up to value this process of gratefulness—the process of reciprocity of goodness done, and the ever‐readiness to reciprocate. Time and istance are not the factors to diminish the Bunkhun. It is the important base for relationship.

While Grateful is a dominant value underlying important relationships, there are variations found among different groups, which help to explain certain observable behavioural patterns. Specifically, the rural people value this characteristic trait significantly higher than the urban Bangkokians. In fact, the national rural sample ranked it the most important value of all, while the Bangkokians ranked it 4th. Inspection across occupational groups reveals that farmers ranked it top significant order, while government officials and students ranked it 4th or 5th respectively. This clearly explains the congenial, warm and sincere relationship and atmosphere one feels once he/she enters the rural area.


Bunkhun” Value and Exploitations

However, this characteristic trait of the rural people also leads to the manifestations of several behavioural patterns as well as the pattern of their being exploited usually by urban‐based, businessminded exploiters. The process of exploitation usually goes like this. The sweet‐tongued urban middleman will contact the locally known person trusted by the villagers, to persuade the villagers that he comes with good intention to help them out of their poverty‐ridden life, by bringing them jobs in the city. He even pays them in advance, usually a few thousand Baht, which worth about one or two years earning for a poor farmer. Being poor, uneducated, yet sincere and grateful, particularly with such ubvious guarantee (few thousand Baht) of good intention and kindness, the poor farmer fully trusts the middleman, and let him take his sons and daughters to the city. He never anticipates anything bad could happen to his children. How can he refuse the obvious goodness of the other person. The job ordeal of the rural migrants drawn into the urban labour market starts from this point. They are drawn into lowpaid jobs as domestic servants, construction workers, factory workers, and services in restaurants, massage parlours, tea houses, and brothels. Under various conditions, all sorts of abuses of human rights occur, including child labours and the well publicized Thai prostitutions.

On the part of the rural poor children, to start with, they have no reason to object their parents. They want to work and send their earnings back to their parents, to help rise up the younger ones in the family. Those who employ rural workers will validate this fact that their servants for example, often ask for advanced salary to send to their parents. Their being grateful and responding to the needs of their parents and family, also shown in the fact that when the planting and harvest seasons come, they will get back to help their family in the rice fields. If their employers do not permit their request for leave, they would just leave the job, even knowing that they would not get the job back. Foreigners residing in Bangkok often felt puzzled by the sudden leave of their servants. Some foreign observers have cited this phenomenon of the Thai servants, as showing the ndividualistic characteristic of the Thai, who would coma and go any time they please. Such observation might have totally missed the point. The rural Thai have a close tie with their family, friends, and community. Demographic analysis of seasonal migrations of the rural‐urban migration has also substantiated this fact, Research report shows that return migration was found to be highest among these engaged in agriculture at their origin (61% over 39% who remained), and the Northeast has the highest return migration. Even those who have no jobs at home will also return home (Chamratrithirong et al., 1979, pp. 49‐54).

Another example of this high attachment to family, and showing of gratitude, has to do with the sad but true stories of the rural poor daughters who, with the hope for city jobs, unfortunately end up in the traps of prostitution, but somehow always manage so send money home. A well‐known Northern village called Baan dok kham tai, which is very different from ordinary villages in that the whole village is full of big and beautiful houses, is known that the villagers built their big houses from the money sent to them by their daughters who work as prostitutes in Bangkok and Pattaya. Northern girls have been known to have fair complexion and are beautiful. In the past few years with the rapidly growing tourism industry, the blooming of prostitution comes with the territory, leading to the beyond imagination report of poor parents selling their young daughters way. The point of all these illustrations is that, sad as it may be in some cases, being Grateful dominates the cognitive world of peasants in general, and farmers in particular, regardless of regional differences. This Grateful value has exactly the same median for the Northern, the North‐eastern, and the Southern peasants.


Bunkhun” Value and “Saang Bunkhun

Evidently, this grateful relationship orientation can be double‐edged. The concept of being Grateful in response to Bunkhun or kindness and favours given, has been the base for good and meaningful relationships in general, and has helped to explain the effectiveness and efficiency of successful completion of jobs and projects which have been accomplished basically through good connections and social relations (Tontisirin et al., 1988). On the other hand, this value can be manipulated and exploited by those who are power‐oriented, in creating, monitoring, and maintaining of any “power” group, clique, gang of hooligans, including “entourage” of superiors—be it in the governmental departments like the sol‐called “mafia” ministry (Ministry of Interior), or in the general business circle, in which “creating gratitude” (Saang Bunkhun) is one of the basic means to get things done or get business going for one’s benefits. Since the Thai in general are too Kreng jai to refuse kindness, the process of “creating gratitude” is often used to establish Bunkhun and power connections. “Ingroups” in many circles are thus built and reinforced. And where money and benefits are involved, the connections of “ingroups” are further strengthened and perpetuated. This helps to explain the behavioural patterns of the so‐called Chao phor (“godfathers”) of the “mafia” type gangsterism, who manifest their influence and connections with government officials, policemen, up to politicians and ministers, in various forms, from policy decisions benefiting business deals down to direct corruptions as appeared in publicized scandals every now and then. It is a known fact that, not only these local “godfathers” have connections for their own good, political parties exist and are able to win Parliamentary seats at general elections because of the support from these local Chao phor. Some of them in turn were officially appointed to be advisors to the Ministers, like the last Minister of Interior, who had appointed over a hundred advisors, too many even for his own memory. Others have made their ways into the Parliament (Bangkok Post, August 2, 1990). In fact, in most government offices, these “ingroups” with vested interest are often connected with medium to large scale corruptions, leave alone their being the major stumbling blocks, for any attempt of organizational change and development that is perceived to be incongruent with their own interest. Such behavioural patterns surfaced in various levels of government organizations. This is why the work of the National Counter‐Corruption Commission (CCC) has never been successful. Through power and relationship connections, people with connections can always get away from troubles including wrongdoings. These are exploitations of the gratitude value of the Thai people.

Conceptually, it would be appropriate to state here that, in those circumstances when the relationships become more and more dominated by power and interest, Mulder’s “fear and power” base analytical frame seems to be applicable to some extent. But to the extent that his model assumes that those in the inferior positions are deeply motivated by fear, by insecurity, by higher needs to be accepted by Phoo yai, and are thus psychologically very dependent and insecure (1978, pp. 70, 72‐74, and many other pages throughout the book), it cannot be correct. Mulder probably forgets to further look into the fact, that when once the Phoo yai in power happens to lose his power, all the Look nong (followers, entourage, or lackeys, etc.) will leave him, but definitely not for the mental hospital, and might or might not seek another power figure, depending on how close they are identified with the former power. It is a power play and should not imply that people in inferior power positions are insecure or have high dependence needs, unless one has empirical proof. In this case of the Thai, there is no proof. In fact, the Thai have strong “ego”, and when the grateful relationship turns into a “power” dominated relationship, the relationship becomes a “transactional” relationship, where there is no deep psychological bond, the “ego” is kept intact and independent, and the duration of the relationship has no meaning. This is triggered off by the value of being Responsive to situations and opportunities when there is no deep psychological bond.

Therefore, in general, having the high value for sincere and meaningful relationship as base, followed by those social smoothing interpersonal relation values, one can say that Thai relationship is usually a presentation of sincerity. Deep and long‐term relationship results from a process of gradual reciprocal rendering and returning of goodness and favours, through successful experiences of smooth interpersonal interactions. In fact, Thai people are easy to be friends. And deep friendship is not difficult to develop, even across hierarchies and culture, provided that their “ego” are not slighted in the process of befriending. It is a wonder to learn that Mulder, as a foreign anthropologist who can speak and read Thai, after 3 years in Thailand, expressed in his book that he cannot develop a single deep friendship with the Thai. It is even more unfortunate that Mulder’s statement has led Cooper (who wrote Culture shock! Thailand, 1982) to devote one whole chapter describing the Thai as being polite and friendly but are superficial, insincere, and would rarely engage in deep lasting friendship. This is evidently incorrectly generalized, if not superficial. The present researcher is certain that many former Peace Corps volunteers, who have successfully shredded off there prejudices, and immersed themselves in the Thai culture, would not agree to those statements.


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