Chapter VIII: Everyday Etiquette
From: Pensri Kiengsiri, Sudchit Bhinyoying, Malithat Promathatavedi, Thai Social Etiquette, Ministry of Culture, Bangkok 2007, ISBN 974-9681-45-2
In Thai society, where seniority is given much importance, and politeness to everyone is stressed, in order to be a person with good manners, one must be aware and careful of almost every gesture or movement, and also of almost every word or sentence one utters.
This may sound like a difficult thing to do, but it is not. Since you grow up with the daily teaching of older members in your family, you soon get used to the required good manners. The points made here are therefore, for some people, more or less only as reminders. Yet they are good for non-Thais to know if they have to associate a good deal with Thai people, work, or intend to live for some time in Thailand.
It is of utmost importance to remember from the very beginning that Thais consider the head sacred. Never, never touch a Thai person's head or the head of any respected, revered image or statue. On the other hand, the foot is considered a lowly thing. One does not use one's foot to point out anything to anyone, much worse touch someone with the foot to get attention.
Manners in Greeting
Thais give a respectful wai when we meet our older relatives, friends or acquaintances. We put the palms of our hands together and raise them up, at chest level for equals, nose level for people older or whom we respect, and forehead level for people we highly respect. As you do this, you should bend your head down a little to the raised hands.
Younger people are expected to give older people a wai first. The latter then return the wai, at chest level. Being older, they do not need to bend their heads.
Manners in Standing
The following is not acceptable especially if done in the presence of people older than you or your superior at work, or in society.
Standing with legs apart, with hands in pockets, with arms folded across the chest, with hands on hips, with hands together at the back, in a leaning position, blocking someone from something he needs to see, blocking a passageway and towering over an older person who is sitting.
We should stand in a straight position. However, when speaking to an older or a respected person, we should bend forward a little to show respect.
Manners in Walking
Walk in a natural, relaxed manner, taking steps that arc neither too long nor too short.
In walking, good manners mean you do not do the following:
Turn your body this way and that way.
Move your head about. Put an arm around someone's neck.
Put your hands in your trouser pockets.
Show absent-mindedness, straying into people's way or blocking a passage.
Walk in front of your boss or superior as if you were leading him.
In walking, when an older person is going in the opposite direction to your direction, if you meet him in a narrow passage, e.g. on a staircase. near or in a doorway, stand aside and let him go first.
Refrain from bolding hands in public as it may have undesirable implication.
Manners in Sitting
Back not turned to your senior
Knees not hugged
Legs and arms not sprawled out
Legs together, uncrossed
Foot not pointing to any person
Foot not on a table
Foot not shaking
Seat not higher than that of a senior or superior.
Manners in Lying down
A well-mannered Thai will not lie in a public area, or lie in his home with his foot pointing to anyone, or remain lying when he is spoken to by someone older than him. He will not lie down in the presence of a lady or a new acquaintance.
A Thai person usually says prayers at the Buddha Image altar or in bed before lying down. He will never lie with his feet pointing toward the Buddha image.
Manners in Clothes-wearing
Some people are not very clear about what to wear on different occasions. Thus it is important to know from a young age tbe right kind of clothes to wear for when, or we may unwittingly be criticized. For example, if you wear shabby or unclean clothes to a formal birthday party in a grand hotel, the birthday gentleman or lady may take your behaviour as a personal insult to him or her.
When at home and a visitor comes, do not welcome him in your nightclothes.
Do not wear T-shirts, shorts and slippers to any function, especially to a temple.
Be reasonably well dressed when you go out shopping.
Wear a party dress for afternoon tea party or cocktails.
Men wearing suits should have at least one button done up.
Men do not roll up their sleeves as if getting ready for a fight.
Manners in Conversation
A well-mannered person will not boast and sing his own praises. Nor will he say things to put down other people. He does not criticise anyone openly and does not give advice without being invited to do so.
He does not ask personal questions such as: How is your ex-wife/husband now? How much do you weigh? How old are you? How much is your salary? And he does not get personal saying things like: I see you've gained weight. You've become so dark.
He does not show that he is well acquainted with someone by calling that person by his father's name. This is greatly impolite and yet some people do it.
He does not interrupt or make noise when people are speaking.
When asked about something, he does not walk away at the same time as he answers, and he always answers when spoken to.
He looks at the person he is speaking to.
He does not use impolite words, dirty words and does not swear. He does not yawn when in company.
He does not make fun of other people or get sarcastic.
He does not gossip.
He does not talk shop with someone and exclude others from joining in the conversation.
He brings in a subject that suits the people he is conversing with, giving consideration to their age, sex, character, education, financial or social status, etc.
He avoids talking about important issues such as religion, political differences, etc., which can cause dispute.
He keeps quiet when a person is making a speech, when someone at a panel discussion is speaking and when he attends a concert.
Manners in Making a Telephone Conversation
When using a public telephone, or when in a home that has only one telephone, do not be too long if there are people waiting to use the phone after you.
Even if there is no one waiting, a person somewhere may be trying to reach that number.
Do not be too loud on the telephone.
If someone calls you, do not keep him waiting too long and do not put down the phone first. The caller may have some other things to say.
If you do the calling, do not call till you are ready to speak. It is bad manners to let your secretary call someone and keep that person waiting for you for a long while.
In using a cell phone, if you are not alone, do not speak loudly to disturb other people's peace or thinking.
Switch off your cell phone at concerts, at important functions or at speech making parties.
Manners in Making a Speech
If you are invited to be a speaker, choose the subject that you know well. It is good manners to do some research to add interesting matter to your speech, and not deliver it with a vague knowledge, without much authority on the subject chosen. A speaker who does not know enough and does not research enough can be seen through easily, and people who come to listen to him will be disappointed, feeling sorry for the loss of their precious lime.
Manners in Speaking at a Debate
A debate in which speakers are meant to differ in opinions can turn into an unpleasant happening, unless the moderator is very smart and knows how to prevent the speakers from being carried away and from quarrelling. In Thailand, I have seen this happen once, with my own eyes in a television programme, in which the debaters started insulting each other.
Nowadays we try to avoid such a happening and people arrange what they call yaw-wathi,instead of a debate. This Thai word means praise-speech. In a yaw-wathi you have praising groups. For example, you invite three singers and three musicians to speak. The singers try to convince listeners that it is much better to be musicians than singers, and the musicians have to argue, saying that it is much better to be singers.
Manners in Speaking at a Panel Discussion
Speak in the lime given for each speaker and do not take minutes from another speaker's time. This is bad manners.
Do not use rude words, sarcastic words, or make fun of whichever sex or age.
When the first round of speaking is over, in the second round, know that lesser time is given for each speaker. Do not use another speaker's time.
Likewise, when the time comes for questions from the floor, if you are invited to answer the first question, do not make another speech out of the answer or there will not be time for the numerous other questions waiting to be answered.
If you are the moderator, see that each speaker uses only his own given time to speak and not steal another speaker's time.
Be unbiased, summing up a speaker's speech very well but not caring to do much for the other speakers.
Do not voice your own opinion. Some moderators do and are quite long about it. You are not the invited speaker. Be not long and boring when you sum things up.
Manners when in Company
Do not scratch here and scratch there.
Do not flap your shirt, or your skirt if you are a woman.
Do not tease or joke excessively.
Do not touch someone else's personal belongings.
Do not stare at anyone for long.
Do not look at a person from head to foot.
Know when to say excuse me and when to say thank you.
Know how to give a good seat to an elderly person.
Do not leave without seeking out the host and saying a proper good-bye after thanking him.
Manners in Visiting
Always calland inform the person about your intended visit, and once you have named the time, be punctual.
Do not visit other people too often.
In each visit do not overstay.
Know the right time to visit, e.g. in the afternoon, at weekends, etc.
One should not visit near mealtimes, at work time or nap times for elderly people.
Unless you are on very good terms with the people you visit, do not tag along someone they do not know just because that person is your friend.
Greet the host with a wai as you see him and say good·bye with another wai when you are leaving.
There are also proper manners that should be observed by the person visited. On knowing that your visitor has arrived, do not keep him waiting too long.
Do not look at him from head to foot.
Welcome him willingly so that he feels comfortable.
Greet him at least with a cup of tea or coffee.
Do not show displeasure with anyone in your home in front of him.
Do not whisper to anyone in front of him. (Where there are more than two people, this should not be done anyway, no matter by whom, no matter where.)
Do not keep on talking about what he knows very little of, or is not interested in.
Do not monopolize the conversation. Do some listening.
See him off to the door as he takes his leave.
Manners in Visiting Sacred Places
In any country there are places considered sacred by the citizens of that country. To visit such a place, e.g. a temple or a palace, you should be respectably dressed.
You should remove your hat if you are wearing one and also take off your shoes.
The best thing to do is to observe what the people who get there before you are doing.
As you are going to walk past a respected object, such as Buddha's image, or the King's portrait, you should stop a while and pay respect, either by giving a wai or bending your head in front of the image or the portrait.
You should not be wearing dark glasses. If you really need to wear them, take the glasses off as you enter the place.
If you have a terrible cold with plenty of phlegm to spit out, do so quietly in a rest room. Do not spit in any public place or in the home in the presence of other people or they will be shocked.
Manners in Making Introductions
Always introduce a man to a woman, a younger person to an older person, a lesser-in-rank to a superior-in-rank, etc. The lesser one will do the wai first and the superior one will give him a wai in return.
In an introduction, Western style, a lady is privileged to extend her hand first. If she chooses not to extend it, a man should not just grab it. If she does extend it, the man should not just take her band and let his hand go limp.
Manners in Public Places
Do not comb or brush your hair in public places, such as when you sit by a swimming pool or sit chatting with a number of friends.
Do not apply make-up in public where anyone can keep looking at you.
Do not pick your teeth. Much worse, push the toothpick further into your mouth so that your lips become lop-sided, or leave the toothpick stuck in your mouth for any length of time.
Do not pick your nose, your eye or your ear in front of people.
Do not start a quarrel easily and make a scene of yourself. When there is a waiting line for any service, join at the end of the line and do not push yourself in at the head or anywhere else in the line.
Where there are a number of toilets, a single line should be kept. In some places, people spread out to wait in front of the many doors. This often ends up with the person who comes first getting the use of a toilet after the one who arrives there third or fourth.
See to personal cleanliness and make yourself acceptable where cleanliness and neatness are concerned, be you at home or outside your home.
Converse in a lowered lone, not noisily or boldly, attracting attention.
You probably see by now that Thai social relationship is quite a complicated thing. This in turn affects Thai social etiquette. This is because, as slated in the book called Forms of Courtesy among ASEAN Member Countries,
'Thai people differentiate between high and low social status, young and old, male and female, strong and weak, master and servant, senior and junior, and rich and poor. The manner and use of language in and between these social groups are different. Thai children are taught in their early years about these "high and low" social relationships.'
Apart from all the good manners listed here, Thais also stress the importance of being a grateful person. We teach our children not to forget a good deed done to them, and also to find an opportunity to reciprocate. In Thailand, one can hardly find a person who is not full of gratitude to his parents. Having been raised with love and devotion by their parents, Thai children are very willing to take care of them in return in their old age.
We also teach our children to be very considerate of people's feelings, and not to let rudeness or unkindness prevail just in order to be unnecessarily honest. If your friend has only this one dress to wear to a party and she asks you whether it looks nice on her, though it really looks terrible on her, you should be well-mannered enough and kind enough not to say so.
Tolerance can be applied. In Thai families, children are taught to be patient and to tolerate events and people in the best way they can, if it is not beyond their ability to do so. They are encouraged to be always well-mannered and considerate. If you understand our general etiquette and the deeper structure underlying it, you will not find it hard to gain lifelong Thai friends.