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Toward a Better Working Relationship with the Thai

Paul first visited Thailand in 1996 and has been retired in Siam since 2007. He has a beautiful and loving Thai wife and can speak Thai.

Author with Thai Wife


Working with the Thai

Since 1996, I have worked with the Thai in Thailand in both government and non-government organizations. As a result of this experience, I have learned very much about the Thai people and how different they are from Westerners. Anyone who must work together with the Thai must be aware of the basic differences between Thai and Western cultures. Most recently I shared a big office and worked together with other Western and Thai teachers in a private elementary and secondary school in the Bangkok area. This article mainly reflects my experiences working with Thai school teachers and administrators, and it suggests tips for establishing a better working relationship.

Working in a Thai School

Teaching in a Thai school is quite different from working in a school in the United States. There are several differences which include:

1. Different Customs

In most Western countries like the United States and Great Britain, people greet each other with a wave or a handshake. Students in Thailand greet all teachers with a Thai "wai". This action entails folding the hands in the form of prayer and then holding them in front of your chest or face according to the seniority and rank of the person you are greeting. A person will hold his "wai" until another person acknowledges it with a "wai." All Thais greet foreigners with a "wai," and a wave or handshake is rarely used. Thai students also use a "wai'" when they are requesting permission to leave the classroom.

Another custom very unique to Thais is sitting on the floor for many activities. When students aren't standing in formation, they are sitting in formation. Many students can be found sitting on classroom floors doing their homework assignments, tests, or class projects.

2. Language Barriers

Contrary to popular belief, English is not a second language for most Thai. It is a foreign language that many people are still very challenged to speak. At the school where I taught, most administrative staff and Thai teachers could not express themselves in English very well. Foreign teachers' expression in Thai is also very bad. In some instances, a conversation between a Thai teacher and a foreign teacher is like hearing a chicken conversing with a duck.

3. Spoken and Written Communication

The working language for all official school spoken and written communication is Thai. All announcements on the school public address system are in the Thai language, and official school publications on and off the Internet are in Thai. The school administration communicates with foreign teachers in English through periodic email message announcements. During my last year at school, the school administration held very few meetings with foreign teachers.

4. School Morning Assemblies

When I attended school, there were no daily morning assemblies. Instead, public address announcements from the school administrative office were piped into every classroom during the homeroom period. At my private school, students assemble by grade and homeroom in the outdoor covered multi-purpose area every morning from approximately 7:30 until 8:00 A.M. After a series of announcements in Thai by teachers and some students, the national anthem is played by the school band and sung by the students. Next, the students recite a code of conduct in Thai which is followed by a series of prayers primarily in the Thai language. Before students are released to their homerooms where they have almost all of their classes, they will have aerobic exercises on some days and meditation sessions on others.

5. No Attention Is Paid to Time

When I was a kid, I was taught that time is precious, and that everyone should be on time for school and events. It's amazing how much time is wasted at my school. Starting classes on time doesn't seem to be important because most scheduled classes routinely begin at least 10 minutes late.

6. Extra-Curricular Activities

During my high school years, ninety percent of extra-curricular activities were held after school hours. I can remember having only one scheduled club period each week, and maybe two or three scheduled auditorium assemblies each semester. Most sports, pep, forensics, and drama activities were held after school in the late afternoon or early evening hours. Some were held on the weekends. In Thailand scheduled class periods are regularly canceled for extra-curricular activities. These activities include pep and cheering practice for the school's Sports Day and singing practice for religious and national holidays.

7. No Teachers' Union

Without a teachers' union in Thailand, all teachers are at the mercy of the school administration. School administrators have the power to deny teachers personal or sick days with pay or to require that teachers make up all of the hours they didn't teach when they were absent due to illness. School administration can also play the age discrimination card and deny annual salary increases to competent teachers over 60 years of age.

8. Education Is a Business

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K-12 education in Thailand seems to be more of a business than it is in the United States. Schools, especially those in the private sector, compete against each other to attract students to their "cash cow" English Programs. Once admitted into a school, students and their parents are treated more like customers. Classes and activities are designed to be very interesting and enjoyable for students. Everyone regardless of their ability or willingness to learn passes with flying colors.

The author working with a Thai teacher at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Thailand in 2014.

The author working with a Thai teacher at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Thailand in 2014.

Better Working with the Thai

Being knowledgeable about the education climate in Thailand. a Western teacher can establish a much better working relationship with the Thai by doing the following:

1. Learn as Much of the Thai Language as Possible

Considering that poor communication is a way of life between Western teachers and many Thai teachers and administrators, foreign teachers must learn as much spoken Thai as possible to express themselves. The fact of the matter is that as much as some Thai teachers pretend, they still can't communicate well with westerners. Possessing spoken Thai skills will also greatly help foreign teachers establish classroom management and gain more respect from students.

2. Learn Outward Expressions of Thai Culture

There is a saying that when one is in Rome, one should do as the Romans do. This is never truer than in Thailand. If a Western teacher wants to endear himself or herself to Thai co-workers, he or she will learn and respect their outward expressions of culture. This includes frequently using the Thai "wai" for greetings and in accepting gifts from superiors. Foreign teachers should also be self-conscious about not pointing their feet at anyone or touching any student on the head.

3. Avoid Confrontations with The Thai

Unlike Western people, most Thai don't like confrontation and go out of their way to avoid it. This probably explains why the school administration doesn't hold many meetings with foreign teachers. In the past when meetings were held, some teachers would confront the administration on school policies. Most Thai, however, wish that all points of confrontation will go away. If they persist, many Thai prefer going through a third party to settle the confrontations.

4. Many Thai Don't Like to Lose Face

The concept of "face" or "greng jai" is very important in Thai culture. Losing face or feeling embarrassed in front of peers is especially unsettling to most Thai. Therefore, many hate to hear personal criticism. If criticism is necessary, it would be best for it to be constructive and to go through a third party. "Greng jai" also means not wanting to inconvenience or upset other people.

5. Don't Take Things Too Seriously

Most Thai by nature are fun-loving people. If you take things too seriously with them, many Thai will get bored and lose interest in what is being done. Some amount of play must be included in a relationship.

6. Don't Get Angry and Lose Your Cool

Getting angry and losing your cool will never solve anything when working with most Thai. It is best to smile and try to mask the anger you are feeling like many Thai do.

7. Have Patience

When working with some Thai, you can not be too demanding and expect everything on time. From my experience, many Thai don't attach as much importance to time as westerners do. The learning curve for a lot of Thai is also not as high as what many foreigners think.

8. The Show is More Important Than Substance

A lot of Thai people are very superficial and value what they see on the surface as being more important than what can be found underneath the surface. As an example, when it comes to hiring foreign teachers, many school administrators will give preference to a young, handsome, and well-dressed westerner who is a smooth talker with no college degree. These qualities many times are more important than having a degree and a lot of experience teaching.

9. Be Aware that Some Thai Aren't Very Good Planners

From my experience, some Thai are very bad at arranging academic calendars. Mid-term tests are scheduled at the most inopportune time leaving teachers with insufficient time for teaching and review. Add-on activities that disrupt scheduled teaching periods are also very annoying.

10. Off-Limit Discussion Topics

A Western teacher would be wise to avoid any discussion about the King and the royal family, Buddhism, or Thai politics with Thai teachers.

11. Expect Personal Questions

It is the nature of some Thai to ask a Westerner about his age, weight, family, salary, and many other personal matters which foreigners deem inappropriate to ask.

The tips that I have outlined for better working with the Thai are not limited to Westerners teaching in Thailand. They also apply to other foreigners who are engaged in partnerships with the Thai people. Being conscious of the differences between Thai and Western culture will go a long way in improving your working relationship with the Thai.

Do's and Don'ts of Thailand

Understanding Kreng Jai in Thai Culture

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 16, 2013:


I appreciate you reading and commenting on this hub. It's great that you found it interesting and informative. Your votes and sharing are especially appreciated.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on April 16, 2013:

Paul, this is an interesting and informative read and some of it is seen over here as well. Voted up and interesting . Sharing too.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on December 08, 2012:


Thank you very much for reading and your interesting comments. I have never lived in Mexico or any other place in Latin America so I really appreciate your comments.

Louisa Rogers from Eureka, California and Guanajuato, Mexico on December 08, 2012:

Hi Paul--

This is very informative! It's funny how many of the points you make about the Thai people (deferring, non-confrontational, face-saving, different relationship with time, etc.) also apply to Mexico, where I have taught, and much of Latin America. Voted up and interesting.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on December 03, 2012:


Thanks for reading. I appreciate your comments.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on December 03, 2012:


Thanks for reading and your very interesting comments. When I first came to Thailand in 1996, I was working for the government and came maybe once a year until 2000 on official business trips. In 2003 I was able to get a government assignment in Thailand until 2007. After I retired from the government, I came here in the summer of 2007 to live and work teaching English.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on December 03, 2012:

Thanks for reading and your great review of this hub. Hopefully, a Thai will read this hub and give me his or her perspective.

maddot from Northern NSW, Australia on December 02, 2012:

As always interesting and informative, thanks.

Suzie from Carson City on December 02, 2012:

Paul...This is truly fascinating. It amazes me how very different the entire school day and rituals, classes, etc are from ours. More totally different the people are......Really. You've been there 16 years? If I go searching through your collection of hubs, will I find one that explains how you arrived there in Thailand......I mean, what brought you there?....and all sorts of other interesting facts?? I'm being nosy.....but you know, as I read this, I've come to the conclusion that I'm a displaced Thai woman......sounded like you were describing me! :) It's not necessary to tell me how much you weigh.....honest!! .... UP+++

Mary Craig from New York on December 02, 2012:

You always provide such useful information. I know it is from an American perspective, but being an American I appreciate it. "conversation between a Thai teacher and foreign teacher is like hearing a chicken conversing with a duck." is definitely explanatory and relatable! Your tips are excellent as well.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

P.S. I would love to hear a Thai's perspective of all of this, wouldn't you?

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