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Relationships in Thailand part 9

How to communicate effectively with your Thai partner

Say you found a girlfriend or prospective wife in Thailand. You live together and get to know each other. In almost all cases your English will be much better than hers which makes communication easier for you.  Here is a checklist of things you should not assume:

1. Don’t assume your partner understands you just because she smiles at you as if she understands you.

Thais rarely if ever say that they don’t understand you. They will nod and smile even if they have no idea what you are saying.

Solution: Ask your partner what percentage she understands of what you are saying. Ask her if she understands 40 percent or 60 percent etc. You might be amazed to find out how much she has been missing.

Ask her what you can do so that she understands more. It might be that you speak too fast and need to slow down. It might be that you use difficult words which you need to replace with simpler ones. It might be that you have to eliminate the use of difficult tenses, like “It would have been better….”, or “If you would have gone to….”

2. When you talk to your partner, don’t assume that she interprets words or concepts in the same way you do.

When you say “I love you”, you might mean that you love her because she is attractive, pleasant, easygoing, helpful and feminine.

When she says “I love you”, she might mean that she loves you because you are a good provider, you are financially stable, and you help support her parents.

Solution: Have a little chat with her and play a definition game of some words and concepts that are important to you. Make it a fun game so that it does not come across as something serious.

This will help bridge communication issues. For example you could ask her to tell you all about family relationships in Thailand, and then you tell her about family relationships in your country and you compare the two.

Beware of a Thai woman who expects you to totally adapt to Thai culture and values. It will not work for you! There has to be compromise and adaptation on both sides.

3. Don’t assume that your partner will tell you what she really thinks.

Thais are used to keeping their thoughts and emotions hidden behind a smiling face. For you as a westerner communication means an honest and clear exchange of  what is on your mind.

For your Thai partner communication means to make sure that there is no disharmony and she gets to save face at all times. Expressing her true feelings is not necessarily on her agenda.

Solution: Remind her repeatedly that you are really interested in hearing what she is thinking, what is on her mind, that her opinions count and that you value her input and ideas.

Make an effort to really listen to her. It will take time, but gradually she will open up and communicate more openly.

4. Don’t assume that she can relate to your way of thinking.

You as a westerner are more used to intellectual conversations and straight forward discussions. It is important to learn how your partner is thinking, and she needs to learn how you are thinking.

But if you try to have serious intellectual discussions with her, she will most likely just feel overwhelmed and frustrated because her mind does not work like that.

Solution: Keep the level of conversation on a more simple level. This is not to say that she is less intelligent, but remember that your ability to express yourself in your native language is much higher than her ability to do so in a foreign language.

And Thais live less ‘in their head’ compared to westerners who are more inclined to analyze, rationalize and dissect everything intellectually. It is better to fulfill your need to have intellectual conversations with fellow westerners.

5. Don’t assume that she is telling you the truth.

The Thai and the western way of relating to truth is very different. For the Thai woman, truth is secondary to saving face, avoiding unpleasant situations, and maintaining harmony.

For the western man, truth is a primary principle, even if it causes disharmony or arguments. You might catch your wife lying, but she might have just been trying to preserve harmony. She will not see holding back the truth as lying.

You might see a lie as as a moral defect, but the Thais don’t attach the same value to the truth as westerners do.

Solution: Talk to your Thai partner and explain the difference about the truth concepts in Thailand and the western world. She probably has no idea that the truth is so important to you.

Tell her that you would appreciate if she is truthful with you, even if it means that telling the truth brings about a difficult situation or challenging conversation. Tell her that it is easier for you to love her if you know that she doesn’t hold back the truth.

And you need to understand that in Thailand it is perfectly acceptable to not come out with the truth if that means that someone might lose face or it creates disharmony. So think twice before accusing her of lying.

These suggestions can go a long way in avoiding culture clash and misunderstanding. Cross-cultural relationships take time to nurture, and both partners need to learn a lot about each other’s ways of thinking and communicating. They will need to learn how to meet in the middle between two cultures.

Click Here to read the next article in the relationship series

Previous articles in the relationship series:
Relationships in Thailand Part 1
Relationships in Thailand Part 2
Relationships in Thailand Part 3
Relationships in Thailand Part 4
Relationships in Thailand Part 5
Relationships in Thailand Part 6
Relationships in Thailand Part 7
Relationships in Thailand Part 8


image of the the author, Shama KernThe author, Shama Kern, has been living in Thailand for well over a decade. His wife is Thai and they have created a successful cross cultural relationship. You can reach Shama at shama@shamakern.com

12 thoughts on “Relationships in Thailand part 9”

  1. I really enjoy your posts and insight you sho on this site. Its taken me many visits to try to work out the “Thai Way”.

    I have been saying that in Thailand everything is so much maore negotiable. Truth, sex, price etc. Its not so fixed like it is in the west. And there are good and bad parts to that. If you want to open a restaurant on the pavement, its quite possible.

  2. Shama, write something about how females from oversea get along with Thai males,will you? Or least tell us some stories about that.

    • That’s a hot topic, I found out. I got some pretty strong comments about this subject in my ‘Relationships in Thailand part 7’ article. A young and attractive western woman will not have much of a problem finding a Thai boyfriend. She will be a novelty for the Thai man and even make him look cool and progressive.

      But finding a good male Thai partner who is able and willing to meet you in the middle between Thai and western culture, who speaks good enough English to communicate effectively, and who commits to staying monogamous is another story.

      The monogamy tends to be a big issue for western women since it is totally engrained in Thai culture that men can have a second (non-legal) wife, or other sexual partners, regardless of their marital status.

      I have spoken to many western women about this, and the prevailing attitude was that they are not willing to accept the Thai attitude towards fidelity.

      There are some good relationships between Thai men and western women, but they are far and few between. For additional stories you might want to read this article, especially the comment section. You will find lots of stories about this topic there:

  3. Hi,
    I am a 45 year old black African woman from Zimbabwe. I was granted a Thai Tourist Visa. I would like to travell to Thailand to look for a teaching job. I do have a university degree, but I did not do TESL. I would be very greatfull if you could pliz answer the following questions for me.
    1) Is it possible for a black, African person to get a teaching job in Thailand, a woman for that matter? (I can speak english fluently)
    2) Are there many black people leaving in Thailand?
    3) What nationality is the majority of english teachers in Thailand?
    4) How difficult is it to teach english to Thai children?
    I plan to arrive in Thailand on Monday the 28th of May.

    • Hi Ellen,
      You will generally need a TESL or TOEFL to teach in Thailand. You can take a course here and get it that way. That you are female is no problem at all. There are not many black people living in Thailand, however I don’t think that this would be a major issue as long as you have the right credentials and speak fluent English.

      There are English teachers from many countries here in Thailand, from the US, England, Canada, all kinds of European countries, and even from other Asian countries.

      Teaching English to Thai children can be a little frustrating in the beginning since the Thai school system does not encourage active participation, inquisitiveness, or good questions. Once you manage to open them up a bit, it is more fun.

      Maybe you could be an interesting novelty here as a black teacher and turn this into an advantage. I am sure you have some interesting stories to tell about your home country. You would stand out from the crowd, so to say.

      I wish you good luck with your teaching endeavors,


  4. Hi, great blog, thank you. I totally agree with your comment about ‘never assume she understands’. I had been dating my Thai girlfriend for several months and really like the way (I thought) she liked my stories and shared my thoughts. One day, almost as a joke, I asked her how much of what I said she understood. With utter sincerity she told me ‘about 20 percent’.

    It was like that moment in ‘The Sixth Sense’ when you think back to all the scenes and realize he is the ghost. All the talks we had had, all the smiles and nods I took as affirmation of understanding were really just her being polite and not wanting to have me lose face by telling me I was making no sense.

    • Hi Fred, your comment is very interesting. I know that this is a very common scenario. Actually it is kind of scary to think of how thousands of foreigners are talking to their Thai girlfriends or wives each and every day, thinking they are communicating. In reality is is a one way monologue with the Thai woman smiling and pretending to understand.

      I have been with a Thai woman for 10 years, actually I am married to her. I know that she understands at least 90% of what I am saying, but still to this day she will never ask me about the remaining 10%. When I use a word that I suspect she might not know, I ask her if she knows what it means. But she would never on her own ask me what it means.

      This ‘face saving’ Thai cultural habit is what makes good communication quite difficult in Thailand. It is often a guessing game if your partner can follow what you are talking about, unless you keep asking if she understands.

  5. I think the problem is not that Thais want to keep harmony. I think the problem is they figure out wrong what to do to keep harmony. If they figured it out right, they would figure out the way to be in harmony with a westerner is to talk directly to him about Thai’s feelings and thoughts (not necessarily presentiong opinions as facts, though).

    • That’s one of the hardest things for Thais to do – openly talk about their feelings. This is just not done here. Feelings are not something to be expressed openly. That’s where you run into the culture clash.

  6. I’ve been telling my wife for 16 years that it’s funny how she can speak a language that she doesn’t understand. It’s amusing to see her talk with someone, nodding her head and smiling like she understands what they’re saying, and then afterwards, she’ll ask me what they meant. Of course, there have been times when I’m not around, and we end up subscribing to some service or another because she unknowining agreed to buy into it. One thing that I’ve learned is that explaing things as you would to a young child helps a lot with making sure she understands important information.

    Anyone who dates or marries a Thai person needs to have a lot of patience and an ability to break complex ideas/words down into much simpler concepts. That’s not saying that Thai people aren’t smart, they just need things explained differently than we do.

    This is a super helpful article, but I wish it was around 16 years ago before I got married. It would’ve made the first few years much easier.

  7. I would not recommend marrying a Thai woman (heck, not even an Asian woman!) unless you are a particularly easy-going, simple-minded man.

    I am currently 3 years into a relationship with a quiet, kind, sugary sweet, fun-loving, patient, forgiving, loyal and impeccably virtuous Thai woman.

    I have never felt so soul-numbingly lonely in my life. I even consider suicide on a daily basis and suffer from intense cognitive dissonance. She is such a wonderful person on paper, but it is extremely difficult for us to connect on anything more than a superficial level. Having conversations with her is frustrating to the point where I simply don’t want to talk to her anymore, because I’m tired of knowing that she’ll only understand 50% of what I say, and will never ask for clarification. So, I don’t know if the relationship is doomed or not. My work life, social life, and ability to connect with other people have all suffered immensely. I am a depressed, anxious shell of my former self. Yet she is too “sweet” to hurt. I feel like I must save her and provide her a wonderful life, because she deserves it…

    I’m considering marrying her due to societal expectations… I tell myself many men back in my home country would kill to be with a woman like her. I tell myself that with committed practice I can simply accept the fact that I will never feel a true connection with her, and just let go of that desire. That said, I’m terrified I’m going to have emotional affairs in the future.

    I don’t know how you do it Shama. I guess I am not as patient and forgiving as you, or perhaps your wife is a bit better at conversation than my GF. I need someone who I can actually *relate* to, someone I can enjoy having a conversation with instead of just avoiding 24/7. There’s no humor or joy in our relationship…. It’s mostly just her talking and me smiling and nodding, and then me talking and her smiling and nodding.

    • Drew, here is my secret. I always knew that communication is extremely important in any relationship. So I always pushed my wife to learn English. In the beginning she also did not understand so much what I was saying, but I kept insisting that she learn better English. Sometimes it was like pulling teeth and it could get frustrating. We even had some fights over it. But to this day, 22 years into our relationship, I still correct her English every single day if she says something wrong. By now she is totally aware that this has actually helped her. Not only that, she has gained a lot of self-confidence since now she can talk to anyone in English and carry on a real conversation.

      I just never gave up on that. I knew that we would not last if we could not have a real conversation that flows. In the beginning she resented that I always corrected her, but after a while she realized that it helped her and she accepted and even appreciated it. Granted, that only works if you feel that the relationship is worth nurturing.

      Thai women are typically more simple than western women. They are not that intellectually inclined and they don’t try to dissect everything with their minds. I don’t mean to say that they are stupid. I am just saying that they have less complicated and convoluted minds than many Western women. For me this has turned out to be a good thing. It has made our relationship much less stressful.

      We can carry on a good conversation without any problems, but it took years to get to that point, I have to admit. If your gf only understands half of what you are saying, then chances are that this will not last. Here are some ideas. I bought my wife a Kindle, downloaded some children’s books and a Thai-English dictionary, and that was a fairly easy way to learn. At some point I also enrolled her into an English-language school program.

      Now I am sure that some wise guy will say: “Well, why doesn’t he learn Thai?”. However the fact is that my wife and I spent a lot of time outside of Thailand. The Thai language is one hundred percent useless as soon as you leave Thailand, whereas English is spoken to some degree in a huge part of the world. So it is infinitely more useful to speak English unless you decide that you will never leave Thailand.

      I do speak some Thai, by the way, and my wife and I often mix Thai and English when we talk to each other, to the amusement of others who listen to us.

      My wife, due to her English skills, is able to travel anywhere in the world by herself, and she has done so several times. Travel expands the mind and opens up new horizons – unless you don’t speak any English and can only communicate with pantomime or Google Translate.

      It is amazing how someone’s mind opens up, how self-confidence and social skills increase, and how relationships can improve with good communication skills and the subsequent ability to travel to different places in the world. It is worth the effort. I have seen the results with my wife and in our relationship. It wasn’t easy in the beginning, but it was so worth it.


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