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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

14 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.

      • Hi Shama,

        It took you a while to reply, so I assumed you had deleted my post. I’m very grateful for your wise and understanding response.

        I do speak some fairly good Thai—my pronunciation is so good that when I am on the phone, Thai service people cannot tell I am not Thai. The problem is just as you stated: Thai is useless outside of Thailand, and since I don’t plan to settle in Thailand long term, it is not really worth it for me to try to improve it to a fluent level. Additionally, while my Thai vocabulary is good for daily living, it’s not at the level where I can discuss complex social or political matters. I doubt I could find many Thais interested in such conversations, anyway.

        I’m a former private English tutor and a degreed linguist. My GF speaks good enough English, but there are some grammatical and pronunciation hurdles I have come to believe she is simply incapable of (or unwilling to) overcome. Forgive me if the following example sounds nit-picky, but I spent the last 4 years trying to help her say “the” and “they” instead of “da” and “dey” (among other things).

        Now here’s the thing that truly boggles my mind: when I’m teaching her, she’ll be able to say “the” 10 times perfectly. But an hour later, she’s right back to saying “da”. It’s not that she can’t do it, it’s like she just doesn’t care enough to improve. This goes for a whole host of English language skills. She can learn them, but she can’t (or won’t) remember them or put them into habit.

        Another issue which is quite frustrating is her omission of antecedents for pronouns. She will say—out of the blue—something like, “It was really nice.” And I will have to respond with, “WHAT was really nice?” Or she might say, “I really like it!” (without making any sort of gesture or reference to anything in particular) and I will have to respond with “You really like WHAT?” The constant need for me to ask for clarification when she says something robs our conversations of any flow or energy. I’ve learned to just zone out when she talks—and I’m constantly tempted to engage in conversation with other women. It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve explained to her over and over again, ad nauseam, the need to identify the subject of a sentence when there is no context, but again, she either can’t or won’t. This becomes even more frustrating when we are in the company of others, where I don’t feel it proper to constantly ask her for clarification. Instead I often end up just sitting there awkwardly.

        Finally, let me lodge one last complaint, which is a bit of the converse of the previous one. She is a smile and nodder to a fault. She will smile, nod and agree with anything anyone says. She will rarely disagree. Sometimes I’ll make a joke or say something silly, and she struggles to catch the fact that it was a joke. She will usually just smile and say “yeah!”. The problem arises due to the fact that, because of this behavior, I genuinely do not know when she does or doesn’t understand something I say, because she doesn’t ask for clarification. I often attempt to communicate something to her, and she will agree, but then I am forced to ask her to repeat my point back to me, and she will be completely unable to do so. In many cases she will not even remember the subject of my sentence. This has led me to believe that much of what I say to her is lost in conversation. Again, what choice do I have but simply to stop trying? This has all been going on for 4 years and with little improvement, I have sort of just given up. Will I still be at this tiring game in 10, 15, or 20 years, when we are raising children?

        She has written me love letters. When I receive them, I was so impressed at her English writing ability that I googled parts of the letters. Sure enough, the majority of the text was copied from online. I felt a bit bad making this discovery, because I do believe she was doing her best to love me with the limited skill set she has. But what I am coming to believe is that perhaps it’s not the kind of “love” I need from a life partner. This makes me very sad, because I want to be a whole and good partner to my wife, whoever it ends up being. I don’t want to FEEL like I NEED a wife who “gets” me. But I think, unfortunately, I MIGHT need such a wife.

        Your story about correcting your wife’s English got me. I and my GF (who I am now separating from, after 4 years) were at my parents’ house a year or two ago, and I was matter-of-factly (in no ill manner) correcting her English in the kitchen, not in a mean way, but as a teacher would. My mother was insulted and criticized me for doing so, and got into an argument with me. She said I needed to love my GF for who she is. While that is true, and while I understand her sentiment, I think she doesn’t quite understand the necessity of good language communication in a relationship, because she and her husband are both educated Americans who have never had such struggles. I consider it “love” to help my partner improve, rather than to just sit around and let them continue making the same errors ad infinitum. And I admit I have let myself get frustrated in the past, because I was so much at my wit’s end with her. But even patient or humorous help seems to go nowhere in the long run.

        I bought my GF a Kindle a few years ago, but she never seems to use it. I bought her English workbooks, but she spent maybe an hour with them and then they ended up in a drawer. She does read books from time to time, but I often doubt she grasps what the books are communicating. I bought her a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which she claimed to have read, but after finishing it, she couldn’t tell me a single thing about it aside from, “I liked the lion”. We have tried to listen to audiobooks together, but she cannot follow characters or plot. She doesn’t ever seem to understand what is going on in a story.

        My GF has an amazing soul. She is patient and kind. Helpful. Deferential. A good cook. I just cannot seem to enjoy communicating with her.

        My mother, who raised and educated me, is also patient and kind, helpful and deferential. But she also reads books all the time. She is a big Dostoevsky fan. She and my father discuss politics, religion, and society together. She and I discuss those same things together. We discuss life difficulties, relationships, and she supports me with emotional issues. I don’t know how I would survive without having my mother to talk to. But she won’t be around forever. I know comparison is the thief of joy, and I don’t want to be “that guy” comparing my GF to my parents’ relationship, but still, their relationship is a model of relationships that is deeply embedded in my brain. Maybe I need a relationship a bit more like my parents’.

        I am still numb, devastated and heartbroken over our separation, as we had traveled many places together and shared a lot of beautiful experiences—and it was the longest I had ever sustained a relationship.

        The problem was, we could not sit alone on a sofa together and enjoy ourselves.

        I am very happy that you and your wife have reached a point where you can be at peace with communication differences. Perhaps your wife’s ability to learn communication skills is superior to my GF’s, or you are a more patient man, or both.

        Thank you again.

        • From my experience, it is a mistake to expect your Thai girlfriend or wife to be an equal intellectually. There are of course some Thai women who could be your equal intellectually, but most Westerners end up in relationships with Thai women from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Most more educated Thai women are not looking for a Western husband, from what I can see, since they don’t need help with getting out of an economically undesirable situation.

          So the women from poorer backgrounds have a strong motivation to connect with a foreigner, whereas the more educated and well-to-do Thai women don’t have this motivation since they don’t need it. They are doing okay already.

          I have met a few Thai women whose English is excellent, but they are the exception. Most Thai women never totally adjust to using English grammar correctly, if at all. A lot of English grammar simply doesn’t exist in the Thai language. Unless they seriously study in an English language institute, they will often never learn it properly.

          I have tried so many times to teach my wife proper English grammar with very limited success. Luckily her English is okay conversationally, albeit not correct grammatically. Since we never lived in an English speaking country, this is not such a big deal since everybody else around her also does not speak totally correct English.

          I know how frustrating it can be to try to change this. My conclusion is that it is simply a mistake to expect one’s partner to be one’s equal intellectually, emotionally, physically – in other words to be a mirror of ourselves.

          This is just too high of an expectation and in many cases impossible to live up to for our Thai partner. Personally, I know that if I want to have a more in-depth or more intellectual conversation, I have to talk to someone else besides my wife.

          And I have learned to appreciate the characteristics that she has and I value and cherish them, like love, loyalty, great skills as a housewife and cook, and 100 percent support for myself. I am happy to ‘outsource’ my intellectual life somewhere outside of our household.

          But I could not imagine a better wife than the one I am married to. I simply had to learn not to expect something from her that she cannot live up to. It would be unfair from me to expect 100 percent compatibility in all aspects of life. That’s asking for too much, in my opinion.

          I am happy to keep our conversations to a level that she is comfortable with and can follow. and at the same time I keep correcting her English daily so that she slowly improves a bit. I am fully aware that she will probably never speak grammatically correct English unless I send her to an excellent school for a couple of years, but this is not practical for our somewhat nomadic lifestyle.

          In conclusion I am happy with our situation. I don’t expect perfection, and I emphasize the good aspects of our relationship and don’t dwell on the shortcomings. I am in the best relationship of my life.

          This might not pertain to your relationship. Your communication might be so sub-par that it is a real obstacle. There is a point where you might conclude that it just doesn’t work. I get it. In my case it took me many years to get to the point where I improved her English so much that we can communicate fairly easily. It also took me many years to learn that I have to focus on the strong parts and not give too much weight to the not-so-strong parts. In the end love prevailed between us, and we are both happy with the situation.

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