“We Thais are afraid that bluntness will be interpreted as rudeness so we try not to hurt each other’s feelings or cause someone to lose face by saying what we really mean.” – Auntie Nong
Excerpt from Culture Shock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette Thailand by Robert Cooper
In Thailand, face-to-face criticism is seen as a form of violence. It hurts people and threatens superficial harmony. Disturbance of the peace is, for the Thai, a totally negative concept. Open criticism is therefore rarely, if ever, entered into with any positive intention of improving a conflict situation. The act of criticism is at best a sign of bad manners, at worst a deliberate attempt to offend.
In the West, it is thought (or pretended) to be possible and even admirable for two people to disagree in public, be critical of each others’ ideas in a meeting, agree to disagree or to reach a constructive compromise, remain friends and go off for a drink together after work. Maybe some farang do manage this extraordinary feat, which smacks of sado-mashochism to the Thai way of seeing. Do not expect Thais to behave in the same way. The difference is an essential part of the great divide between conflict-resolution and conflict-avoidance.
In Thailand, differences of opinion exist but critical expression of these differences is carefully avoided. Resolution, if any, of conflicting points of view is less a matter of dialectical debate than of behind-the-scenes manipulation.
Criticism is not only disliked, it is also regarded as destructive to the social system. The superior is supposed to decide. The inferior is supposed to obey. To criticize a superior is to question the idea that the superior is always right. To criticize an inferior would suggest either the inferior is responsible for making decisions or that the orders given to the inferior by the superior were inadequate or that he superior had made a mistake in entrusting the job to somebody who was incompetent to do so.
If a superior is criticized, she/he would most likely respond by removing the source of criticism. Even if the inferior’s comments made sense and could have saved money and lives, they are unlikely to be considered. In the unlikely event that such criticism is acted upon, the inferior is likely to gain nothing and is more likely to be sacked, demoted or transferred than praised and promoted.
The inferior criticized by a superior cannot remove the source of discomfort but she/he can remove her/himself. As fast as possible, flee the scene. If she/he does not, she/he has to accept public shame. Such public acceptance is inevitable accompanied by private resentment. A Thai can brood for months.
How to Criticize
Indirect criticism is a subtle art and the same format cannot be followed time after time. But following basic ground rules should act as some kind of guide.
- Avoid public confrontation at all costs.
- See the person yourself.
- Pick the best time for the talk, preferably when things are going well, never when you are angry.
- Balance any criticism with praise using a ration of ten parts praise to one part criticism.
- Be indirect and diplomatic, offering criticisms with praise as suggestions if possible and obtaining verbal agreement.
- Be nice all the time and buy lots of cream cakes for everybody.
There are, of course, limits to being nice. Thailand will teach you yours.