Thai boy

3. Smooth interpersonal relationship orientation


How Thais make living with them so smooth.


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.



Unlike the Americans whose top values tend to focus on Self-actualization, ambition and achievement, down-playing such values of Self-control and Polite, the Thai, after pricing “ego” and “grateful relationship”, place high value on a group of ‘other-directed’ social interaction values—all added up to project a picture of smooth, kind, pleasant, no-conflict interpersonal interactions, in short, the “surface harmony” as observed by many. This orientation is characterized by the preference for a non-assertive, polite and humble type of personality (expressed through appearance, manners, and interpersonal approach), as well as the preference for a relaxed, and pleasant interaction which accounts for the “smiling” and “friendly” aspects of the Thai people, fascinating most foreign visitors.



This group of ‘other-directed’ social interaction values, which the present researcher would like to call “social smoothing” values, is another most interesting finding of the Thai Value Survey. They are projected by the following values, listed according to their rank order of importance:

(1) Caring and considerate
(2) Kind and helpful
(3) Responsive to situations and opportunities
(4) Self-controlled, tolerant-restrained
(5) Polite and humble
(6) Calm and cautious
(7) Contended
(8) Social relation

The findings of this group are significant for three reasons:

1. Five out of the above eight interpersonal relationship related values emerged on the Thai value list, but not on the American value list. They are: Caring and considerate; Responsive to situations and opportunities; Calm and cautious; Contended; and, Social relation. The other three are more or less comparable with the American corresponding values, with slightly different shades of meanings.

2. Not only that some of the “social smoothing” values are not found in the American value list, they have consistently secured their significantly high rankings in the Thai value system. The first two values—Caring and considerate, and Responsive to situations and opportunities—have never slipped from the high value group. And the whole group of “social smoothing” values have consistently shown to have very few variations across groups over time. Almost no significant differences were found when considering different backgrounds, such as sex, different educational levels, different occupations, poor and rich, politically conservative and radical, and, religious and non-religious. This finding is exciting, because it suggests that, more than anything else, the consistency across groups and over time, is due to the uniform perception from the Thai of all walks of life, and that these values are deeply internalized and are actively functional in the everyday life of the Thai. And the Thai are intuitively keen in observing and practicing these subtle social rules.



The finding is also significant, in that it helps to shed some light on the often-cited Buddhist influence in shaping certain Thai characteristic traits, such as Jai yen (calm, easy-going, not easily excited), May pen rai (contented, nothing really matters or Arai koa dai), and Arom dii (ever-smiling, even-tempered, not extreme emotional expression). Such characteristics have often been explained by the Buddhist teaching of the “Middle Path”, “Detachment”, “Equanimity”, and extinction of desires and emotions. However, the three values which are related to such characteristics were not found to be related significantly with religion. These three values are Calm and cautious, Contented, and Self-controlled, tolerant-restrained. And the correlations with the proven religious value indicator—Religious and spiritual life—are, +.00, +.09, and +.05, respectively, which are very low. Neither are they significantly different in the 1981 data, when Southern Thai-Buddhists and Thai-Muslims were significantly differentiated by their different degree of tenaciousness to the religious value of Religious and spiritual life, they were not different in these three often cited Buddhist influenced values. In fact, there were no significant differences found for the whole group of “social smoothing” values between the Thai-Buddhists and Thai-Muslims. This suggests a disproof of the over-claimed religious influence of Buddhism over these characteristic traits of the Thai. Evidently, these over-claimed religious related values are thus more of the socio-cultural traits that have no direct relationship with Buddhist religion. They, together with other “social smoothing” values, are elements of Thai culture, that through socialization, have been internalized by all Thai—be it Buddhists, Thai-Muslims, or Thai-Christians. The present finding is also substantiated by an early study of the effects of Buddhism over the personality traits, particularly on the dimension of “maintaining equanimity or staying uninvolved”, which found that there was absolutely no significant difference found between Buddhist and Christian tenth grade (M.S. 3) students in Chiangmai (Sensenig, 1973).


One has to bear in mind that most of the religious influence claims have been based mainly on speculations and on a serious of cross-references, rather than on concrete proof of relationships. The findings should provide some thought for any future reference of Buddhist influence. It is true that Buddhist doctrines provide great appeal because of their simplicity and face validity. But to cite them to support any observed behaviour should be done with great caution, list it can be very misleading.

Since the value of smooth interpersonal relationship is a dominant value orientation in the cognition of the Thai, a number of related issues or topics will be analyzed as follows.



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