Learn Thai Podcast | Understanding Thai Language & Culture

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast. As I mentioned a while ago, I have been living in Thailand for over 15 years. And today I am going to share with you some of my observations about Thai culture and the Thai language. I think you’ll find some of these observations interesting and enlightening, even if you never plan to take a trip to Thailand.

However, for those who would like to visit, work, or retire in Thailand, I have a special offer for you. For only $7.99 you can receive all 6 of my Thai Language e-books, where you will learn how to speak Thai like the locals do, while receiving tips and advice that you’ll find in no other Thai language book or guide book. To take advantage of this special offer, please go to: LivingHour.org/Thailand.

Now, on to today’s reading…..

If you are planning a trip to Thailand, whether it be as a tourist, business person, or English teacher, your success in The Land of Smiles will depend on more than learning a bit of the Thai language. More importantly, it will involve understanding the nuances of Thai culture—especially the complicated but ubiquitous issue of face saving and loss of face.

Westerners can understand the concept of face saving when it involves obvious humiliation. But there are hundreds of not so obvious situations where face issues are at play and the foreigner is (more often than not) blissfully ignorant until it’s too late.

For example, it is obvious to many foreigners who live in Thailand that we should always be humble in victory, and never (even in good-natured fashion) jokingly rub it in when winning a game or argument. Less obvious though is how our “why” questions cause a Thai person to feel a loss of face.

Most Americans, Canadians, and Brits don’t realize how much we abuse why questions. However, if you think about it a little, you will begin to see how frequently we use why questions not because we are seeking the unknown but because we are trying to coerce an apology, or an admission of guilt, forgetfulness, or stupidity. Because nearly all Westerners do this, nobody takes too much offense.

However, Thai people do not fancy this manipulative game we foreigners play with why questions. They see it (often rightly) as an attempt to make the other person lose face. So, if you want to maintain good relationships in Thailand, you’ll be wise to scale back your why questions.

Every time you feel compelled to ask why, ask yourself if it is really necessary; ask yourself if the answer is one you don’t already know or if you have an ulterior motive. Lastly, ask yourself if your Thai language skills or their English skills are up to the task of explaining the answer in a comprehensible manner. If you do this, you’ll likely nip around 90% of your why questions in the bud.

Another cultural trait among Thais, which is indirectly related to face saving, is the manner in which they admire those who do not put another person out (that is, inconvenience anyone)—even slightly. This is what is referred to as being “greng-jai”.

Foreigners have a hard time fully understanding greng-jai, even though they are familiar with what it means to put someone out. Most of us tend to think that asking a friend for a favor isn’t putting them out because that is what friends do, and there is an unspoken quid pro quo that the favor will be returned in some manner. However, this is not the way that many Thais feel about friendships and favors.

Thai friendships commonly (but not always) hold a lower position on the relationship scale than do friendships among Westerners—especially when compared to Thai family and extended family relationships. In addition, favors are supposed to be granted without any expectation that the favor will be returned one day. So, how does this all relate to the issue of losing face?

Well, if you were to ask a Thai friend at work for a favor, they know that the nice thing to do would be to grant it. If they say no to your request, they would lose face because they aren’t being nice. So, they may end up lying and making up an excuse for why they can’t help you. Or they may begrudgingly say yes to your favor, all the time wondering why you are not more greng-jai.

A good general rule of thumb is never to ask a Thai colleague or friend for a favor unless it is absolutely necessary. If it is a necessity, then it’s best to explain your predicament to your Thai friend and see if they offer to help you first; then the favor becomes their idea and you can gladly accept their generosity.

What this means in practical terms is (for example), don’t ask a Thai colleague for a ride to work if your car has broken down and you can easily take a taxi instead. Don’t ask to stay at a Thai friend’s home if you are in town for a visit and can simply rent a hotel room instead, etc.

Lastly, because of the importance of greng-jai as a virtue, if you see that a Thai friend of yours is shy about asking YOU for a favor, you can make them happy by telling them they don’t have to be greng-jai around you, because you are such good friends.

Now, let us move on to the delicious subject of Thai food. Over the past couple decades, Thai restaurants have popped up everywhere in Western countries, giving foreigners a taste of what we here in Thailand have been enjoying all along. Unfortunately, many Thai restaurants in Europe and America change traditional Thai recipes to suit the local palate, and thus customers miss out on experiencing the true wonder of Thai sauces and traditional Thai dishes.

Much of Thai cuisine favors simplicity, Thai cooks believing that complexity is usually the sign of a show off who doesn’t have proper respect for his or her ingredients. A delicious and satisfying Thai meal can be had simply by grilling up some chicken or pork, and serving it up with a bit of sticky rice and Thai dipping sauce, as well as a side dish of som dtam.

When it comes to Thai sauces, it is the dipping sauce that truly shines. And no Thai dipping sauce dazzles more than the Isaan favorite nam jim jaew (น้ำจิ้มแจ่ว). Many foreigners are familiar with sweet Thai dipping sauces. But nam jim jaew really can’t be characterized as a sweet sauce. It is a delicious blend of sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitterness that places it in a class of its own among Thai dipping sauces.

The first time you try nam jim jaew, you may think “What the heck is this?!” But just give it time. Try some more. It grows on you with each dip of grilled chicken or pork. By the time you have finished your first meal of grilled meat, nam jim jaew, sticky rice, and som dtam (preferably prepared by a street vendor and not a hi-so restaurant), you will be singing the praises of this dipping sauce too.

Thai beer is, of course, the perfect drink to wash down such a meal. The three most popular Thai beer brands are: Chang, Singha, and Leo. The latter is rarely mispronounced, since Leo sounds just like it does in the West. However, the first two Thai beer brands are regularly pronounced incorrectly—even among long term expats in Thailand (which is always somewhat surprising).

When you are ordering any brand of Thai beer, you begin with the Thai word for beer, which is bia, followed by the brand name. So, for example, you may want to order a bia Chahng, not a Chaeng beer, or a bia Sing, not a Sing-ha beer.

Now, let’s talk briefly about the Thai language in general. If you are planning on visiting or working in Thailand, we do recommend spending a little time getting to know the basics of the language—which on the surface seems intimidating, but actually isn’t that hard at all. What is the best way to learn Thai? Well, there are a lot of Thai language resources available today. From classic Learn Thai books to Thai language websites and Thai podcasts. I recommend that you use as many Thai language materials as you can. Variety is the spice of life, as well as the key to successful Thai language learning.

Why take the time to Learn Thai, at all? Because when you learn a new language you acquire a new soul. And when you learn the Thai language you gain a new spirit of living—especially if you come from the West. Learning Thai is in many ways unlike learning any other language. It requires sensitivity, intuition, and a healthy appreciation for brevity over complexity. It also requires a good sense of humor and relaxed attitude towards life.

When you learn Thai it is easy to get discouraged. It is especially frustrating when you try to learn Thai tones. However, I have some good news. When you learn Thai the most important thing is not the tone of the word but placing the words in the right order. It doesn’t matter if you speak pitch perfect Thai, if you don’t get the words in the right order you will not be understood. To learn Thai right, get the word order right.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Word order is critical. When you learn Thai you can’t mix up the words and still be understood like you can with English. Pay attention to Thai tones, be aware them, try to duplicate them as best you can, but don’t stress about it. Learning Thai tones will come naturally the more you practice speaking Thai.

Here is another important tip about how to learn Thai. Start by learning the longer forms of Thai words first. Speaking the longer form of a Thai word will increase your likelihood of being understood. Beginning Thai learners should shy away from using the shorter form of words. For example, using the word rôop for photo instead of rôop-thài or using chúht for shirt instead of sêua-chúht.

This is because the longer form of the Thai word is easier to understand within the context of a sentence, even if you get the tone wrong. Using more words in your sentences also makes you sound more polite — although it should be noted that speaking polite/formal Thai in casual situations that don’t demand it can cause confusion in the person to whom you are speaking.

Lastly, if you are serious about learning the Thai language, then I do encourage you to learn how to read Thai. While the Thai script appears daunting at first, it actually can be mastered rather quickly with regular practice. Knowing how to read Thai significantly improves your pronunciation, and will make it much easier to use Thai language books, since you won’t have to rely on the many different ways that authors transliterate Thai.

Lastly, let me offer one final observation for those who are considering a move to Thailand, either for retirement or for employment. There is a familiar trajectory among many expats in the Land of Smiles. It starts with wide-eyed wonder; moves on to self-confidence and pride; and ends with bitter disillusionment. Unable to take responsibility for their failures, these foreigners blame the Thai people and excoriate Thailand to everyone they can find on online forums and social media.

To those other expats who are happy and content with their lives in Thailand, these cynics will issue the following admonition: “It doesn’t matter how well you learn Thai; it doesn’t matter how well you try to fit into Thai culture; you will never be accepted as Thai!”

The best response to this kind of warning is: “So what?” Becoming Thai is not the goal of learning Thai and living in Thailand. Many people learn the Thai language simply because it makes their lives in Thailand more interesting and fun. Not only that, they like living in Thailand because it gives them a greater understanding of themselves and the country from which they came.

The writer Donald Richie, who was a long time expat in Japan, sums up this idea pretty well with the following quote:

“…Here is the great lesson of expatriation…. In Japan I sit on the lonely heights of my own peculiarities and gaze back at the flat plains of Ohio, whose quaint customs no longer have any power over me, and gaze at the islands of Japan, whose quaint customs are equally powerless in that the natives insist that I am no part of them. This I regard as the best seat in the house, because from here I can compare, and comparison is the first step toward understanding.”

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All transcripts from our self-help podcasts are edited adaptations of the original work and copyrighted by LivingHour.org.