Thailand is advertised as the “Land of Smiles” where open, friendly and smiling people welcome all those millions of foreigners who visit every year. After living in Thailand for many years I can definitely confirm that the Thai smile is one of the great aspects of being in Thailand.
Those easy and spontaneous exchanges of smiles have made me feel good countless times. So it should be easy to become friends with the Thais, right?
But there is another side to this. Thais are generally very shy around foreigners. Unless they work in the tourist industry where they constantly interact with foreigners, or they work in a foreign-owned company, Thais feel uncomfortable and often insecure around the “farang” (the Thai word for people of caucasian origin).
Friendships in Thailand
Real friendship with Thais is rare. I mean friendship where you can talk about anything, trust each other, visit each other, do things together. Yes the Thais will smile at you and they will talk to you, but it will only be very superficial.
Besides the language barrier the biggest reason is that Thais and “farang” don’t think in the same way, their minds work differently.
The Western-Thai culture clash
If two Americans meet and talk, they both understand how the other one thinks since they come from the same culture and have similar values.
If an American meets a Thai, two worlds collide that do not really connect. Both don’t understand each other’s thinking, values, cultures, and habits. Even if they use the same words, they often interpret them very differently.
The Americans (as a proxy for most westerners) value straightforwardness, whereas the Thais consider it offensive. The “farang” (westerners) display a self-confident attitude whereas the Thais feel backed into a corner.
The Americans assume that the Thais understand what they are saying because they are smiling and nodding, but actually the Thais are just being polite and might not have a clue what you are talking about.
The Westerners openly display their emotions whereas the Thais totally hide them behind their smiles. The list goes on and on.
Is Thailand multi-cultural?
Thailand appears to be a very multi-cultural country with those millions of visitors and expats all over the country. But the truth is that the two connect only very superficially and Thailand is far from being an open and multi-cultural society.
This is not so evident to most visitors. They assume that just because they have a nice, friendly smiling conversation with a Thai, this means they have made a friend and have truly connected. But the Thai does not think so and will keep them at arm’s length from what they really think and feel.
Most foreigners will never understand the depth of feeling the Thais have for their king, and most Thais will never understand that not all foreigners are rich and something akin to walking ATM machines.
Foreigners have a hard time penetrating through the smiling veneer of Thai faces and Thais have a hard time with the direct and straightforward approach of westerners. Opposites do not attract here.
Relationships in Thailand
What kinds of inter-cultural relationships exist here? The main one is the relationship between western men and Thai women. This is the subject of another article, but in a nutshell many Thai women want to be in relationships with westerners for various reasons with the economic ones being number one.
Relationships between Thai men and western women exist, but they are are not very common. Most Thai men are somewhat afraid of the straightforward, direct and self-confident attitude of western women which is totally different from the attitude of Thai women.
Real friendships between western men and Thai men are extremely rare. In all my years of living in Thailand I have not met one single western man who has a real close Thai male friend. There are of course exceptions to all my observations, but they are a very small percentage.
Thais and the outside world
Thais have very little curiosity about other countries. After many years of being in Thailand I have never been asked by a Thai about my country, what is happening there, how people live or think, what they eat or how they play or work. Not once! They are just not interested.
This is not meant to be a value judgment, it is only an observation. Most westerners come here brimming with curiosity about Thai culture and the Thais will happily tell you about it unless you probe too deeply, and then they will shut you out by smiling politely. The cultural curiosity is only a one-way street here.
The side of Thailand which visitors rarely see
This article is not meant to pass judgment on the Thais. Thailand is my adopted home country and I love living here, and I love the Thai people. Every country has its strong side and its weak side; nothing is perfect and neither is Thailand.
My purpose is to reveal a layer of Thailand that is mostly not seen by foreigners and is well hidden behind the endearing Thai smile. It can help you to adjust expectations you might have and it can help you to further your understanding of Thai culture and Thai thinking. It can help you to see a side of Thailand that is not displayed on the glossy covers of tourist brochures.